Christmas movies often have a comforting familiarity, especially when it's a holiday-set boy-meets-girl story. But not The Noel Diary. According to writer-director Charles Shyer, this story could take place at any time of year.
Out Nov. 24, The Noel Diary follows best-selling author Jake Turner (Justin Hartley) home when he has to settle his estranged mother’s estate. Her passing comes right ahead of Christmas, but it’s not like Jake has other plans. His most committed relationship is to his beloved Australian Shepherd, Ava. Despite amassing a fan base of women for writing high-stakes tales of romance (with a side of espionage), Jake prefers being alone.
While cleaning out his mom’s house, Jake encounters Rachel (Barrett Doss), who is also suddenly in the trenches of confronting her childhood. Together they embark on a journey to reckon with their pasts and discover a new future.
“It was 100 degrees that day in Connecticut,” director and writer Charles Shyer tells LA Confidential over Zoom in early November. He’s describing one of the movie’s most important scenes, hinting at the emotional overtones of the story amidst all of the charm and laughs in The Noel’s Diary. “I was sitting on a rooftop nearby at the monitor and I felt myself tearing up at Essence [Atkin’s] performance. And I just knew if I'm tearing up, the audience is gonna tear up.”
Read on for more from Shyer about the movie, working with Justin Hartley and what we all can learn about forgiveness.
When did you first get involved with this project?
One of the producers had optioned this book, and then Netflix had hired somebody to do a script and they sent me the script. I had been sent a lot of Christmas movies in the past, but I actually didn't like any of them. They were all so cookie cutter and they were all like the movie where the actress comes out of the shop carrying all the packages and bumps into the guy and drops the packages, he picks them up and they fall in love. I didn't want to do one of those movies. So I went in, I read the script, but I thought I turned down so many movies that maybe I should be more positive.
Why didn’t The Noel Diary feel like a cookie cutter script to you?
It was the kind of story that could take place at any time of the year. Christmas was just a layer of snow and crackling fireplaces and stuff like that, but that story would exist on its own without Christmas. And I liked that. I didn't want it to be like all the other Christmas movies. I certainly didn't want it to be like a Hallmark Christmas movie. That's just not my bag.
What made Justin Hartley your ideal Jacob Turner?
He’s just got such range, and he's such a good guy. He became a really good friend of mine. When I made my movies with Steve Martin, Steve was always so polite. He would always say to me, “When you have it the way you want it, I have an idea that I want to try.” I said, “Sure. OK, great.” Every time Steve tried something, it ended up being better and in the movie. And with Justin, anytime I gave him a direction, he just did it in a way that surprised me, was original, heartfelt. He's just a real, sincere and relatable actor, and I love that about him. And so is Barrett Doss. The reason I hired her was she reminded me of Diane Keaton because she's not predictable. Nothing is routine with her. She just gets it out and she's just very loose. And that’s the way Keaton is. And then I had Bonnie Bedelia and James Remar. I had a great cast. I had five people who were, in my opinion, true heavyweights, so it was a dream situation.
It’s funny you describe Barrett that way because that's pretty opposite from her character, Rachel.
She just has a way of interpreting things that I think are so fresh. If she makes a mistake, it's like Keaton. If she makes a mistake in the dialogue, she'll go with it. She'll take it. Like when the window goes up once by mistake in the car, and she just kept playing it and it's in the movie. It's always great mistakes that make it seem fresh and original.
What can audiences take away from The Noel Diary about forgiveness but also vulnerability?
It's like Billy Wilder, the famous director, said. We all want the same things—those of us who make movies. We want to make them laugh and make them cry. And that's really, I guess, my goal in this movie: to enjoy it, but be moved. I guess if there's a theme here it's forgiveness and to let bygones be bygones and don't hold grudges and just approach life in a more mature way.
It's a lesson of trying to not be so hard-edged. A lot of people I know always think they're right. And when they're not. It's like the know-it-all who knows nothing. So that for me was about forgiveness, about redemption.
The Noel Diary hits Netflix on Thanksgiving. Why do you think this is a movie we need right as the holidays get into full swing?
The country is so divided and so tribal and so black and white. It would be great if people could stop and think for a minute that everybody's not right and everybody's not wrong, that there is a middle ground. I think that would be great.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Charles Shyer also wrote three songs for the movie: “Christmas in Connecticut with You” (performed by Steve Tyrell), “Sweet Christmas Memories” (performed by Minnie Murphy & Ty Herndon) and “Christmas in Your Heart” (performed by AJ Wells). You can listen to the score and songs on Spotify.
Photography by: KC Bailey/Netflix