Charles Shyer on New Film Noel Diary, Casting Justin Hartley – The Hollywood Reporter
Charles Shyer is back.
The Oscar-nominated screenwriter turned filmmaker has returned to the director’s chair with his first film in years just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday, Netflix’s The Noel Diary starring Justin Hartley and Barrett Doss. Based on the book by Richard Paul Evans, Hartley toplines as a best-selling author who returns home at Christmas to settle his estranged mother’s estate, only to encounter a mysterious stranger as well as a diary that may hold the keys to their respective pasts.
Turns out he cast one of his leads with a little help from his longtime collaborator and onetime wife, 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 we’re very good friends now, and when I was casting The Noel Diary, she read the script and said, ‘You’ve got to see 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 that great eye for talent, and that’s what rang the bell for me.”
In a wide-ranging interview with THR (the morning after his L.A. premiere), Shyer opens up on what drew him to The Noel Diary (and how he worked to make it less corny), the film he’s most proud of (and the one he barely made it through due to sparring stars), his cinematic blind spots (Star Wars and Marvel movies), and why retirement just isn’t a word in his vocabulary (“What am I going to do? Garden?”).
How was last night?
It was so nice. [Netflix] did a great job and the audience was really excited to see the film. We didn’t have a Q&A last night. We were in New York a couple of days before and we had one there, and often times the questions give you an indication of how people feel about the movie, which was positive. Without one, you’re kind of listening to whether people are laughing or sniffling or whatever they’re doing.
It’s been a few years since you presented a film you directed. Has anything changed for you in terms of how you feel about getting feedback?
The difference, for me, is that I’ve never worked for a streamer; I’ve only worked for studios. With studios, you usually have previews, and that gives you an indication of what people think and that can be horrifying in a way because one of the questions is, what didn’t you like about the movie? (Laughs.) Who said they didn’t like anything? So that part is different but what I’ve found with Netflix, and this is only my experience, is that they are a lot less hands-on creatively than studios. I mean that in the most positive way.
If you’re doing your job and you stay within budget and on schedule, they’re very supportive. It was a real pleasant experience for me, and that’s it. The fundamentals are all the same. You’re shooting digital, which is obviously different than on film, but not that different longer.
A lot of people say the benefits of working for Netflix are, the money is great, and they give a lot of creative freedom. Was that a better experience all around for you?
It’s a trade up that you would take any day. I’d make less money in exchange for having more creative freedom, but sometimes you get really bad ideas from the studio. That didn’t happen here. It was all just really good. It was a really good 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. Making a Christmas movie under those conditions was really a challenge, but it worked. Netflix supported that, too.
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. You can’t tell because we really worked hard and Netflix was very supportive of that. They knew the minute we hit the middle of July in Connecticut, we were kind of fucked.
This is your first film in a number of years. What have you been up to?
I wrote and directed a fashion film that won a bunch of awards, so that was good. Then I worked on this movie, Eloise in Paris, based on the books. I was on that for two years and, again, we scouted locations in Europe and did screen tests and had cast the film, but then the company went out of business; George Harrison’s Handmade Films went belly up. People always said to me, “Well, you got paid.” But I thought, well, that’s not really the point because the point is that we really wanted to make the movie, and it would’ve been a really good movie. We were caught in the grind of the budget. 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 first?
No, actually. I was sent the script that Netflix had. Other people have offered me movies and rewrites to direct, and most of the time, if they’re offering you a rewrite, that means there’s a wrinkle that it’s not so good. But I got the script for [The Noel Diary] and I went in, but it wasn’t the kind of movie that I wanted to make, really. It just … I don’t know, it was a faithful adaptation of the book but it didn’t ring the bell for me, as [Ernst Lubitsch] would say.
It’s hard for me to be honest about that. (Laughs.) I felt that, at times, it was kind of corny. This is so tricky because the novels are huge hits and the adaptation was a faithful adaptation. It just wasn’t the kind of movie that I would feel comfortable making. It just was not for me. So Rebecca Connor and I went in and rewrote it, pretty freely I have to say. I’m really happy with the results. But the foundation came from the novel and from the previous screenplay.
What did you take out or add to make it less corny?
I took out a lot of the stuff that I felt was very obvious. There was no dog in the original, so we added the dog, Ava. We wanted to create a character, [Justin Hartley’s Jake Turner], who was a loner but not lonely. He had this dog and it’s actually based on my dog, Ava, who is an Australian shepherd. And then, Jake wasn’t any kind of specific writer in the previous version, you didn’t know he wrote mystery. It seemed to ring and became more specific. Anytime you’re more specific, the better. What else? The father was married in the original version and had a wife, and we thought that he should be a reflection of Jake. I thought that would be more believable, especially with him being a loner.
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 turned down a ton of shit — stupidly. You think it’s going to go on forever and then suddenly the phone rings one time less a day and you’re going, 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 started to open my eyes a little bit more and be more receptive and not act like such 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?
Well, it’s more if the subject matter doesn’t interest me. I have weird taste. I was just telling somebody that I’ve never seen a James Bond movie ever in my life. Science fiction also just doesn’t work for me. I’m very specific with what I like, so certain movies don’t hold my interest. I’m probably wrong because they certainly hold an audience’s attention. 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’d rather watch a football game.
Now, I have to ask what Marvel movie?
[Shyer calls out to his son in the other room.] Hey, Jake, what was the Marvel movie that we saw? [Jake says Doctor Strange.] Yes, the one with Benedict Cumberbatch, it was that one. It’s not a bad movie. [Jake then says, “We saw Guardians of the Galaxy, too.”] Oh, I guess we saw that one, too, and we liked the music. I’ve seen two Marvel movies, so I have limited Marvel knowledge.
What are your other blind spots?
Star Wars movies. I saw the first one. This isn’t [a slight to Star Wars] because I’m sure there’s brilliance there — I mean we know there is — but it doesn’t hold my attention.
Let’s go back to The Noel Diary. What was the most challenging scene for you to get right?
The ending was really tricky. The inspiration for that is Claude Lelouch movies, which I’m a major fan of. In fact, this is very much like a Lelouch ending because I didn’t want something that was just so on the nose. The producers kept saying that we needed to have them kiss at the end but I said no. The other scene that was hard was the one where he’s standing in the snow outside her house and she’s standing in the window. The dog didn’t want to stand still and it was really fucking cold.
The scene that kills is the one with Essence Atkins and Justin on the rooftop. That was special. She is a brilliant actress and he’s so great. It was one day and she just comes in and nails it. She also did the voice for young 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’s truly a brilliant actress.
You have a good cast with Essence, Justin, Barrett and then some veteran stars in Bonnie Bedelia and James Remar. What did you look for when casting?
Barrett was basically an unknown to the general public. I read a lot of actresses for her part and she was the only one who had a kind of spontaneity. I knew Justin was a very strong actor with huge range, and he’s as good-looking a guy as who lives on the planet. We did a lot of readings together, Barrett and Justin, because I felt it would be a crapshoot otherwise. Chemistry is something you can’t fake. With Bonnie Bedelia and James Remar, they’re heavyweights and I know they can deliver, just primo actors. I knew Essence was brilliant. But with the leads, I thought, “How is this going to work?” and if you don’t read with the two of them, you could be up shit’s creek if it doesn’t work.
There’s a scene we were filming, just after her character has met Justin’s character. She’s saying goodbye to him and her window goes up by mistake and she just kept acting and it worked. She makes mistakes into pluses and never does anything the same way twice. She’s very spontaneous, like Diane Keaton. Keaton would drive script supervisors insane because she would eat with one hand on the first take, the other hand on the second take and then with no hands. It wouldn’t match but it always kind of worked. Barrett is a little bit unconscious when she’s acting, which is beautiful. She just gets in there.
Going back to the ending, did you have to put up a fight about not having them kiss?
No, I said no, and there’s the thing: The good thing about working with Netflix is that I said no and they talked to me about it. I said, “Guys, it doesn’t work. It’s corny.” And they said, “Do what you want to do.” It’s nice.
After this, I see that you have another Christmas movie coming …
I co-wrote the script and I’m an executive producer. I was going to direct that but then this came along and I didn’t want to do two Christmas movies.
Is it a genre you enjoy?
No, not especially. I mean, I like Christmas and I have a big family but no. But that’s the other thing about this movie, it exists without Christmas. I could take Christmas out and it would still work. What Christmas does is it gives you atmosphere. It gives you crackling fireplaces and snow, coziness and all of that stuff. But the story would hold up without all of that. It’s not one of those movies where the girl comes out of the store holding a bunch of boxes and bumps into a cute guy who picks up the boxes and they fall in love. It’s not one of those movies.
Speaking of your big family, do you have any holiday traditions in terms of sitting around together and watching holiday films?
Up until the past two years, I’ve always had a Christmas party with all of my kids and friends. I guess I may do that this year. It’s still a little dodgy with all this COVID stuff. Shit, man, I don’t know, but I may do that. I have a pretty cool house and my kids and I will usually watch It’s a Wonderful Life, which is one of the best performances ever by Jimmy Stewart. I mean, ever. We light the fire and hopefully it will rain and we’ll get to pull the blankets out. [The Noel Diary] opens on Thanksgiving Day and it’s the only Netflix movie they are opening for four days, which is a big vote of confidence for us, so that’s nice and makes us really happy.
It’s coming out on the heels of the Lindsay Lohan holiday movie. She’s somebody you know from your Parent Trap days. What do you make of the Lindsay Lohan comeback?
I actually had the opportunity to direct Lindsay and James Franco in The Holiday, Nancy’s movie. Cameron Diaz’s character made trailers, if you remember, and the trailers are in the movie, so James Franco and Lindsay Lohan star in those. I directed those scenes so I had a chance to work with her again during that time and she’s great. She’s so good in The Parent Trap. The bar was so high because she was so brilliant playing both parts. Things got weird for her, and I don’t think her parents helped the issue at all. I know she had a rough time. But it seems like she’s come out on the other side of it and she seems to be glowing through this comeback, which is nice.
You mentioned your family and there’s a lot of creative DNA flowing through your family tree. Do you screen The Noel Diary for them?
I did. Annie and Hallie have seen it, and I guess all of my family has seen it. Well, they saw it without the snow. They saw a version in July and we were pretty blown away when they saw it again. My younger kids have seen it three times now.
Your daughter is a filmmaker, too, does anyone give you notes?
They do. And here’s the thing, I worked with Nancy for so long that I really don’t love getting notes from people I don’t completely trust and believe in. Hallie had a bunch of really good notes on this movie, notes that make you go, 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 had screenings that made you go, “What the fuck?” Bernardo Bertolucci was there, Robert Towne, people that just take your breath away. I remember Towne gave us notes on that movie and every note was right on the money and you couldn’t dispute it. He was just right. You’d go, this guy is so fucking smart. I feel like with my kids, Hallie and Annie, I feel confident that there’s no agenda. Do you know what I mean? Other people feel like they have the right just to say shit.
You’re in the unique position of having written one of the only scripts that Jack Nicholson ever directed. It’s sad to see him disappear a bit from the public eye. Are you in touch?
Not really. Nancy did a movie with him and if I ever see him, it’s really warm and friendly. Look, he’s up there with the greats of all time. He’s up there with Dustin [Hoffman], Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant. He’s one of the greats. I loved working with him. We were in Durango, Mexico, for a lot of the shoot. I wrote that with my partner, Alan Mandel, and while I was a bit younger than Jack, I had a hard time keeping up with him because he’d go until 4 a.m. We’d be going, Jesus Christ, how can we keep up? But our thing was, we would never stop because it was such a challenge to keep up with Jack that we would make him drop. He had so much energy and so much creative good will. He’s fucking Jack Nicholson and you’re happy to be in the room with him, so you had to keep going because you would think to yourself, how often is this going to happen?
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 most proud of?
The American Cinematheque had a screening of our movie, Irreconcilable Differences, about a year ago. Nancy and I were nervous about seeing it because we hadn’t seen it in so long. And god, they had a completely full house which, first of all, just stunned me that anybody knew about the movie. Secondly, we both were really proud. It was very ambitious. It was the first movie that we made writing, producing and directing. It really held up. I was very proud of the performances and the movie. I love that movie. I love my movie Alfie. I guess I’m happy with most of my movies. There’s only one that I don’t like. You can guess what that one is.
You’re not going to say?
No. I don’t love trouble. I’ll say that.
That was a really rough movie to make because the cast really didn’t like each other and it was brutal. 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. That movie was just not fun.
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 are a director but you’re not a psychoanalyst. As much as you try, it’s hard. Nancy and I tried but we knew about two weeks in that it wasn’t going to work. We went to the head of the studio and told them that it wasn’t happening and we should pull out. That was a big deal for us to do, but they really didn’t want to do it. They believed in it.
You have a lot of experience navigating the studio system. Anything you miss about the good old days?
Yeah, sitting in a movie theater with people where you really get the vibe of what’s happening. There’s nothing like that. Steven Spielberg just talked about it and I miss it. I think movie theaters are going to go the way of bookstores and record stores. They’re just not going to be around anymore and that’s very sad to me. I’m thankful that I got to work during a time when they were around; it was very exciting. Going to the first preview of Father of the Bride was a thrill. And when we got nominated for Private Benjamin, I didn’t even know that was possible to be nominated for that movie. I heard about the nomination on the fucking radio if you can believe that. And I miss previews. If a movie worked, like Father of the Bride, it was a great feeling.
Speaking of Father of the Bride, did you watch the reboot? The Andy Garcia version?
I just wasn’t interested. I saw the preview and it didn’t look like a comedy, first of all. Secondly, what’s the point of me watching? Nancy wrote and directed this short thing that we did together. I was an executive producer on it and that was more up my alley. We had [Steve Martin and Martin Short], Robert De Niro, and it was good. It was fun. Short, but fun.
You and Nancy were such a dream team. Is there a chance there will ever be another Charles Shyer-written, Nancy Meyers-directed movie in the future?
Oh, I wouldn’t be against it. The truth is, we’re very good friends now. When I was casting The Noel Diary, she read the script and she said, “You’ve got to see this guy Justin Hartley on This Is Us.” I didn’t know who he was. She said, “I’m going to tell you what episodes to watch because he is really good.” I watched and she was totally right. So he’s in the movie 100 percent because of Nancy.
She’s still got that great eye for talent. She knew exactly what episodes to watch. She’s a brilliant writer and creator and yeah, that’s why he’s in the movie. That’s what ringed the bell for me.
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 make of that statement and would you agree?
I would say tell that to Leo and Brad Pitt. They can get anything made. And Tom Cruise. The slam dunk of certain movie stars still exists and maybe it depends on the material or if they’re cast in a movie that fits a certain perception. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was such a great movie for me. Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant and those two guys [Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt] together is just magical. They were like [Paul Newman and Robert Redford]. There was just something about them together, their chemistry, it was magical. That only happens in certain movies.
What’s the best thing you’ve seen recently?
I haven’t really seen much recently. I thought Thirteen Lives was good. I’m going to start watching movies now because the Academy screeners start coming in now. I’ll sit down with my kids and watch some stuff because I’m trying to educate them on movies.
As a member of the Academy, everyone is talking about the Oscars and how to turn around the ratings. What’s your take?
In the old days, the host meant a lot. I think now, with the politically correct or the woke approach to things, it flattens everything out. It’s tricky, man, because I guess the conceit is that the general public doesn’t care who the sound editor is. I don’t know how you address that.
I know a lot of people will be happy to see a Charles Shyer movie out in the world. Do you know what you want to do next?
I have two movies that I’ve written that I want to do. One is a May-December romance that takes place in France. The other one, which I think is a really good script, I would love to get Jennifer Aniston. 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 came out really good, so I’m trying to do that. So I’m working on it and putting together look books. We hired a casting director and we’re just trying to move forward. This is my first day on the new horizon after this movie.
Is retirement a word in your vocabulary?
No. I mean, what am I going to do? Garden? I’m too nuts, man. (Laughs.) I just have a lot of energy. I want to keep going. I actually love the process and I love the camaraderie. I love what I do. If I drop dead, maybe it will be holding a camera.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.