Charles Shyer on New Film ‘Noel Diary,’ How Nancy Meyers ‘100 Percent’ Helped Him Cast Justin Hartley

Charles Shyer on New Film ‘Noel Diary,’ How Nancy Meyers ‘100 Percent’ Helped Him Cast Justin Hartley

Charles Shyer is back.

The Oscar-nominated screenwriter and filmmaker has returned to the director’s chair with his first film in many years, Netflix’s The Noel Diary . It stars Justin Hartley as well as Barrett Doss. Based on Richard Paul Evans’ book, Hartley is a best-selling author who returns home to settle his mother’s estate at Christmas, but finds a mysterious stranger and a diary that could hold the keys to their pasts.

He cast one of his leads with some help from his longtime collaborator, Nancy Meyers . Married for nearly two decades before splitting in 1999, the pair collaborated on such classic films as Baby Boom, Irreconcilable Differences, Father of the Bride (and its sequel) and Once Upon a Crime. And while Meyers does not have an official credit on Shyer’s latest film, Netflix’s The Noel Diary, the 81-year-old writer-director is quick to tip his hat to his ex.

“The truth is that we are very good friends now. When I was casting The Noel Diary ,, she read the script. She said, “You’ve got to watch this guy Justin Hartley from This is Us,” ” Shyer tells THR .. “He’s in the movie pretty much 100 percent because of Nancy. Nancy still has a great eye for talent, which is what rang the alarm for me.”

Shyer speaks out in a wide-ranging interview (the morning after his L.A. premiere), about what drew them to The Noel Diary and how they worked to make it less corny), his cinematic blinds (Star Wars and Marvel movies, and why retirement isn’t something he can think of. Garden?”).

The Noel Diary

Justin Hartley in The Noel Diary.

KC Bailey/Netflix

How was last night?

It was wonderful. It was a great film and [Netflix] did an excellent job. Last night, we didn’t have a question and answer session. We had one in New York just a few days before. These questions often give an indication of people’s feelings about the movie. You can’t really hear people’s laughter or their sniffling, or whatever else they’re doing.

It’s been a few years since you presented a film you directed. Is there anything that has changed in your attitude towards getting feedback?

For me, the difference is that I have never worked for a streamer. I have only worked for studios. Studio previews are a great way to get an idea of what people think. (Laughs.) Who said they didn’t like anything? This is the part that is different. However, what I have found with Netflix, and this only my experience, it that they are much less hands-on creatively than studios. This is a positive thing.

They are supportive if you do your job well and keep to your budget and schedule. It was a pleasant experience. The basics are the same. Digital photography is obviously different from film but it doesn’t make the experience any less basic.

A lot of people say the benefits of working for Netflix are, the money is great, and they give a lot of creative freedom. Did you find it a better experience?

It’s a trade-up that you would make any day. I would prefer to make less money in return for more creative freedom. However, sometimes the studio can give you some really bad ideas. This didn’t happen here. It was all just so good. It was a great experience. And this was a problematic movie because we started out in Vancouver, we had location scouted, hired crew and everything, but then COVID-19 hit. We got booted out of Canada and had to move to Connecticut in the middle of summer when it was 90 degrees. It was a difficult task to make a Christmas movie in those conditions, but it worked. Netflix also supported this.

Oh wow, I never would’ve known that you filmed in the summer having watched the film. I didn’t realize that snow was fake …

It’s all fake. It’s hard to tell, because we worked hard and Netflix was supportive of our efforts. They knew that we were fucked from the moment we reached the middle of July in Connecticut.

This is your first film in a number of years. What have you been doing?

I directed and wrote a fashion film that won several awards. I then worked on Eloise at Paris ,, based on the books. That was a two-year project. We scouted locations across Europe, did screen tests, and cast the film. But George Harrison’s Handmade Films collapsed. People would always say to me, “Well, you get paid.” But, I thought, that’s not the point. The point is that we wanted to make the film, and it would have been a great movie. We were caught up in the budget grind. We could have made that movie for $15 million but they were trying to make it for $40 million or something like that, and it was just not realistic, especially in the way that movies have changed so drastically.

How did The Noel Diary come to you? Did you read the book?

No, actually. Netflix sent me the script. Others have offered me movies or rewrites to direct. Most of the time, if they offer a rewrite it means that there is a flaw in the script. But I did get the script for [The Noel Diary , and I went in. However, it wasn’t the movie I wanted to make. It was just… I don’t know. It was a faithful adaptation of The Noel Diary but it didn’t ring the bell for my, as [Ernst Lubitsch] would put it.

Why not?

It’s difficult for me to be truthful about that. (Laughs.) It felt a bit corny at times. This is a tricky issue because the novels are hugely popular and the adaptation was faithful. It wasn’t the type of movie I would be comfortable making. It was just not for me. Rebecca Connor and me went in and rewrote the document, quite freely I must say. The results are great. The foundation was laid by the novel and the screenplay before it.

What did you take out or add to make it less corny?

I removed a lot of stuff I felt was obvious. We added Ava, a dog to the original because there was no dog. We wanted to create a character like Justin Hartley’s Jake Turner, who was not only lonely but also a loner. He owned this dog, and it’s actually based upon my Australian shepherd, Ava. Then, Jake wasn’t a specific writer in the previous version. You didn’t know that he wrote mystery. It seemed to ring, and it became more specific. The more specific you are, the better. What else? We thought Jake should be a reflection on the father who was married in the original version. This would make him more plausible, especially considering he is a loner.

The Noel Diary

Barrett Doss, Justin Hartley in The Noel Diary.

KC Bailey/Netflix

Going back to what you said about being offered rewrites or projects to direct — anything notable that you turned down?

I’m sure, yeah. … The Devil Wears Prada . I was stupid enough to turn down a lot of shit. It seems like it will go on forever, but then suddenly the phone rings less often and you are wondering “Now what?” I don’t remember all the projects because most of the time, you read to page 12 and go, “Forget it, I can’t do this.” But then the days turn into months turn into years and you start to think, well, maybe this is not a good thing. I began to see the world through a different lens and was more open to learning and less inclined towards acting like a big shot.

Do you have a general rule by page 12 if something doesn’t grab you by the lapels then you say, I don’t need to do this?

It doesn’t matter if the subject matter isn’t interesting me. I have a strange taste. I was just joking with someone that I have never seen a James Bond film in my entire life. Science fiction doesn’t work well for me. I am very particular about what I like so certain movies don’t interest me. They certainly keep an audience’s interest, so I could be wrong. I saw one Marvel movie with my 16-year-old son and it wasn’t terrible, but I just knew that there was no point to seeing another one because they are the same movie. I would rather watch a football match.

Now, I have to ask what Marvel movie?

[Shyer calls to his son in another room.] Jake, what was that Marvel movie we saw? [Jake says Doctor Strange .] Yes, that was the Benedict Cumberbatch one. It’s not a bad film. [Jake then states, “We also saw Guardians of the Galaxy ,.”] Ah, I guess that we did. We liked the music. I have limited Marvel knowledge, having only seen two Marvel movies.

What are your other blind spots?

Star Wars movies. I saw the first one. This isn’t a criticism of Star Wars ]. I know there’s brilliance — we all know — but it doesn’t keep my attention.

Let’s go back to The Noel Diary. What was the most difficult scene for you?

It was a very difficult ending. This was inspired by the Claude Lelouch movies which I love. This is actually a Lelouch ending. I didn’t want anything that was too obvious. I refused to let the producers tell me that they needed to have them kiss at end. The scene where he is standing in the snow outside of her house while she is standing in front of the window was another difficult scene. The dog refused to stay still, and it was freezing cold.

The scene with Justin and Essence Atkins on the rooftop is the one that kills. It was a special scene. He’s a great actor and she is a brilliant actress. It was just one day, and she just came in and did it perfectly. She also performed the voiceover for Noel. I was going to hire someone else for the voiceover but she said, “Let me do it.” But the character was 16 years old and she said she could do it. She is a brilliant actress.

You have a good cast with Essence, Justin, Barrett and then some veteran stars in Bonnie Bedelia and James Remar. What were you looking for in casting?

Barrett was largely unknown to the public. I was able to identify only one actress who could perform the part with spontaneity. Justin is a strong actor with a wide range of skills and he’s as handsome as anyone on the planet. Because I thought it would be a disaster otherwise, Justin and Barrett, we did a lot more readings together. Chemistry is something you cannot fake. Bonnie Bedelia and James Remar are heavyweights, and I know they can deliver. I knew Essence was brilliant. I was certain that Essence was brilliant. But, I thought, “How does this work?” If you don’t read with them, you could be in serious trouble.

We were filming a scene just after Justin’s character meets hers. She says goodbye to him, and her window is accidentally raised. She just kept acting and it worked. She turns mistakes into positives and does not do the same thing twice. She is very spontaneous, just like Diane Keaton. Keaton would drive script supervisors crazy because she would eat one hand on the first take, and the other on the second. Then, she would eat the third take with no hands. Although it wouldn’t work, it was a good match. Barrett can be a little naive when she is acting, which is wonderful. She just gets in there.

The Noel Diary

Barrett Doss in The Noel Diary. Doss sings in the film, which features a score composed by Dara Taylor and three songs penned by Shyer: “Christmas in Connecticut with You,” performed by Steve Tyrell; “Sweet Christmas Memories,” performed by Minnie Murphy and Ty Herndon; and “Christmas in Your Heart” performed by AJ Wells.

KC Bailey/Netflix

Going back to the ending, did you have to put up a fight about not having them kiss?

No, I said no. And here’s the thing: Working with Netflix is great because I said no and they talked about it. It doesn’t work, I said. It’s ridiculous.” They replied, “Do what’s best for you.” It’s nice.

After this, I see that you have another Christmas movie coming …

I co-wrote the script, and I’m also an executive producer. I was originally going to direct it, but then I saw this and decided I didn’t want two Christmas movies.

Is it a genre you enjoy?

Not especially. I mean, I like Christmas, and I have a large family but no. This movie exists without Christmas. It could be made without Christmas and still work. Christmas gives you atmosphere. Christmas gives you warmth, coziness, and crackling fireplaces. The story would still be a success without it. It’s not a movie where the girl walks out of a store with a bunch boxes and meets a cute guy who takes the boxes and falls in love. It’s not one those movies.

Speaking of your big family, do you have any holiday traditions in terms of sitting around together and watching holiday films?

I have always hosted a Christmas party with my friends and family every year for the past two years. I think I might do that this year. It’s still a bit tricky with all the COVID stuff. I don’t know what I will do, but I might. My house is pretty cool and my children and I often watch It’s a Wonderful Live , which is one of the greatest performances by Jimmy Stewart. I mean, ever. We light the fire, and it will hopefully rain. Then we can pull out the blankets. [The Noel Diary ] will open on Thanksgiving Day. It’s the only Netflix movie that they will be opening for four consecutive days, which is a huge vote of confidence for us.

It’s coming out on the heels of the Lindsay Lohan holiday movie. You may recognize her from your ParentTrap days. What do you think of Lindsay Lohan’s comeback?

I had the chance to direct Lindsay and James Franco in The Holiday , Nancy. Cameron Diaz’s character made trailers. If you don’t remember, the trailers are in the movie. James Franco and Lindsay Lohan play those roles. I was able to direct those scenes, so I was able to work with her again. She’s amazing in The Parents Trap . Because she was so brilliant in both roles, the bar was high. Things turned out to be a bit sour for her and her parents didn’t help. She was clearly going through a lot. It seems that she has come out the other side and seems to be glowing through her comeback.

You mentioned your family and there’s a lot of creative DNA flowing through your family tree. Do you screen The Noel Diary ?

I did. Annie and Hallie saw it, and I’m sure everyone in my family has. They saw it without the snow. We were blown away by the second version that they saw in July. It has been seen by my younger children three times.

Your daughter is a filmmaker, too, does anyone give you notes?

They do. Here’s the truth: I worked so closely with Nancy that I don’t like receiving notes from people I don’t trust or believe in. Hallie provided a lot of great notes about this movie. They make you think, “Oh yeah, that’s right!” A long time ago, when I was just a writer, I did a movie called Goin’ South that Jack Nicholson was in and directed. Jack was a great screener. Robert Towne and Bernardo Bertolucci were there. They are people that take your breath away. Towne gave us notes about that movie. Every note was correct and it was hard to dispute. He was right. This guy is just right, you’d think. I feel like I can trust my children, Hallie, and Annie that there is no agenda. You know what I mean? Others feel they have the right to just say shit.

You’re in the unique position of having written one of the only scripts that Jack Nicholson ever directed. It’s sad that Jack Nicholson has disappeared from the public eye. Are you in touch with him?

No. Nancy made a movie with him, and it was very warm and friendly. He’s right up there with the greatest of all time. He’s right up there with Dustin [Hoffman], Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. He’s one the greatest. It was a pleasure working with him. We spent a lot of time in Durango, Mexico for the shoot. I wrote this with Alan Mandel, my partner. Although I was younger than Jack, it was difficult for me to keep up with him. He would go until 4 AM. We’d be moving, Jesus Christ, how are we going to keep up? We knew that Jack was our only hope. It was so difficult to keep up with him that we would make him quit. He was so full of energy and creative good will. He’s fucking Jack Nicholson, and you’re happy that you’re there with him. You had to keep going, because you would ask yourself how often this is going to happen.

Charles Shyer

Charles Shyer

Annie Wells/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

You had such a stellar run throughout the ’80s and ’90s, it was pretty remarkable to look back at all your films in preparation. What are you proudest of?

About a year ago, the American Cinematheque screened Irreconcilable Differents . Nancy and I were anxious about seeing it since we hadn’t seen the movie in so many years. They had a full house, which was amazing to me because I didn’t know anything about the movie. We were both very proud. It was ambitious. It was our first movie, and we were the ones who wrote, produced, and directed it. It held up well. The performances and the movie were very impressive to me. That movie is my favorite. I love my movie Alfie. I think I am happy with most of my movies. Only one is not my favorite. Guess what it is.

You’re not going to say?

No. I don’t love trouble. I’ll tell you that.

Ah, yes.

It was hard to make this movie because the cast didn’t really like each other. I shot this movie, The Noel Diary, in 27 days. I Love Trouble we shot in 89 days, and one of them is such a better movie than the other. It was not enjoyable.

As a director, you already have so much on your shoulders with an entire production looking to you for answers, and then to have to play mediator between two stars who don’t get along is a lot of stress to add to the situation …

You may be a director, but you are not a psychoanalyst. It’s difficult, no matter how hard you try. Nancy and I tried, but after two weeks it was clear that it wasn’t going to work. We went to the studio’s head and told them it wasn’t going to happen and that we should leave. It was a huge deal for us, but they didn’t want it. They believed it.

You have a lot of experience navigating the studio system. Do you have any memories of the good times?

It’s great to be able to share the experience of a movie with others. It’s hard to find anything like it. Steven Spielberg just spoke about it, and it’s something I miss. Movie theaters will be gone, just like record shops and bookstores. They won’t be around any more, and that’s very disappointing to me. It was a great experience to be able to work with them. It was an exciting experience to go to the preview of Father Of The Bride . It was a thrill to see that we were nominated Private Ben ,. If you believe that, I heard about the nomination via the fucking radio. Previews are what I miss. It was great to feel good when a movie worked, such as Father of the Bride ,.

Speaking of Father of the Bride, did you watch the reboot? Andy Garcia version

No.

Why not?

I was not interested. It didn’t look like a comedy to me when I first saw it. Second, why am I watching it? Nancy directed and wrote this short film that we did together. It was more my thing as an executive producer. We had [Steve Martin and Martin Short], Robert De Niro, and it was good. It was great. It was short, but it was fun.

Alfie World Premiere

The Alfie team: Dave Stewart, Sienna Miller, Jude Law, Charles Shyer, Jane Krakowski, Nia Long and Mick Jagger at the film’s London premiere in 2004.

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

You and Nancy were such a dream team. Is there any chance that there will be another Charles Shyer-written, Nancy Meyers directed movie in the future.

Yes, I would be against it. We are very good friends now, the truth is. She read the script when I was casting The Noel Diary and said, “You have to see this guy Justin Hartley” This is Us .” I had no idea who he was. She said, “I’m going tell you which episodes to watch because Justin Hartley is really good.” I watched the episode and she was absolutely right. So he’s in the movie 100 percent because of Nancy.

Oh wow.

She still has a great eye for talent. She knew exactly which episodes she wanted to watch. She is a brilliant writer and creator, and that’s why he’s in this movie. This was what rang the bell for me.

Annie Meyers, Nancy Meyers and Hallie Meyers

Nancy Meyers is flanked by daughters Annie, left, and Hallie, whom she shares with Charles Shyer.

JP PULLOS/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

With your experience, I wanted to ask you about movie stars. Jennifer Aniston just told Allure in her cover story that there are no more movie stars and social media has killed all the glamour. What do you think of that statement? Would you agree?

I would tell Brad Pitt and Leo that. They can do anything. Tom Cruise is one of them. It’s possible that certain movie stars still do the slam dunk, but it all depends on the material or if they are cast in a movie that suits a certain perception. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood was a great movie. Quentin Tarantino is brilliant, and those two men [Leonardo DiCaprio & Brad Pitt] together are just magical. They were like Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Their chemistry was magical. There was something about them together. This is what happens in some movies.

What’s the best thing you’ve seen recently?

I haven’t seen much in recent years. I thought Thirteen lives was great. Because the Academy screeners are coming in now, I’m going watch movies right away. I will sit down with my children and watch some movies because I want to educate them about movies.

As a member of the Academy, everyone is talking about the Oscars and how to turn around the ratings. What is your opinion?

In the olden days, the host was a significant person. It seems that with the politically correct or woke approach to things, everything is now flatten. It’s tricky because the conceit is that the general population doesn’t care about who the sound editor actually is. I don’t know what you do about that.

I know a lot of people will be happy to see a Charles Shyer movie out in the world. Are you sure what you want to do?

Two movies I have written that I would like to make are: The first is a May-December romance set in France. I love Jennifer Aniston for the second one, which I think has a great script. I also have an autobiographical movie that I’ve been working on for, I don’t know, 30 years. The pandemic was a mitzvah for me because I had nothing else to do so I went from page 30 to 110. It turned out really well, so I’m trying again. So I’m still working on it and putting together lookbooks. We have a casting director, and we are just trying to move on. After this movie, this is my first day on the horizon.

Is retirement a word in your vocabulary?

No. No. Garden? I’m too nuts, man. (Laughs.) I have a lot energy. I want to keep going. I love the process and the camaraderie. I love what I do. Maybe it will be me holding a camera if I die.

Charles Shyer on set of ALFIE.

Charles Shyer on the set of the 2004 film Alfie.

Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Interview edited to lengthen and clarify .

This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Read More