Dara Taylor on Scoring The Noel Diary: "It's a very folksy score for a Christmas movie”

Dara Taylor explains how she composed a folk-inspired score for the number one-streamed Netflix Christmas film, The Noel Diary.

Cleaning out his childhood home at Christmas, a novelist (Justin Hartley) meets an intriguing young woman (Barrett Doss) searching for her birth mother. Will an old diary unlock their pasts – and hearts? 

An intriguing plot summary from the director that brought audiences The Parent Trap, The Father of the Bride and 2004’s Alfie combined with a Netflix release at the tail end of November proved to be a recipe for Christmas movie success this year. Released on November 24, The Noel Diary racked up 21.8 million CVEs (complete viewings equivalent) in just four days, and in the second week in December it’s still sitting comfortably atop of Netflix’s most watched films chart.

The Noel Diary is the number one movie in the US today; I’m freakin’ blown over!” enthuses California-based film and TV composer Dara Taylor. “What a thing for which to be thankful!”

When it came to the festive flick’s score, director Charles Shyer reached out to Taylor, whose diverse past work includes the George Clooney-directed Amazon movie, The Tender Bar, highly acclaimed television series The Boys, 2016’s Bad Moms (starring Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Jada Pinkett Smith and Christina Applegate), Netflix sci-fi series Lost in Space, long-running CW show, Supernatural and 2022 American horror thriller, The Invitation. It turns out that when it comes to Christmas movies, this isn’t Taylor’s first rodeo.

“I've done a surprising amount of holiday movies over the course of the last year and a half,” says Taylor from her home studio. 

“What is beautiful about them is that you can be really earnest and speak directly from the heart. There's less subterfuge and averting expectations – you can really speak from the emotion.”

It's really about the romance and the charm, so Christmas is more the backdrop of the emotional through line.

Streaming has opened up a whole new world – and amount – of festive films in the last few years as studios capitalise on people’s enduring fondness for the genre. The big releases hitting the small screen this year were Apple TV Plus’ Spirited (starring Ryan Reynolds, Will Ferrell and Octavia Spencer), Netflix’s Lindsay Lohan-starring Falling for Christmas, Amazon Prime Video’s Your Christmas or Mine? (starring Sex Education’s Asa Butterfield) and Netflix’s The Noel Diary

Best of all, with a captive audience happy to be soothed by the feel-good cheer of a holiday movie from the comfort of their sofa – they don’t even have to be good to get people watching – although it doesn't hurt to have a captivating plot and watchable leads steering the way.

“I guess the thing about Christmas films is they’re heartwarming; it's about finding that sense of familiarity,” nods Taylor on the popularity of the genre.

Helmed by Shyer, the film was in a safe pair of rom-com hands. “He’s a master in all things film, especially films that come from the heart,” acknowledges Taylor. 

“It was such a treat and an honour to work with him. When I got that call, it was surprising, just because he has such a legacy. I started off by sending some theme ideas to see if we were on the same page, sonically. 

"It was the best of both worlds because he was very involved, but also very trusting at the same time. He was there for every session and it was one of those experiences that you take with you where you learn just how nice a collaboration can feel.”

It's not a teenage love story – it speaks to a lot of different age groups.

On scoring a holiday movie compared to a ‘regular’ one, Taylor shares that she was mindful of Christmas music cliches, but also acknowledges that they play a part in what audiences expect from a holiday movie’s score.

“There’s a little more sleigh bells than you might normally put in,” she laughs good naturedly. 

“But it's finding ways to put them in steadily and finding more subtle ways to use them. There's a scene where there's a lot of trains passing by, and it's this kind of sonic tableau where he's telling you a story, but then there are trains and the music, and it all kind of melds together. 

"We use some tubular bells in that section, which do evoke Christmas, but they also kind of evoke the train. So it's finding ways to speak to both things and finding moments to use the more Christmassy elements, but that speak to more than just Christmas. 

"This film is one that takes place at Christmas, so Christmas has its own special through line in the film, but it's really about the romance and the charm, so I feel like Christmas is more the backdrop of the emotional through line than it is the main focus of the film,” she points out.

Each cue from The Noel Diary can be found on the film’s soundtrack album, and some of Talylor’s particular favourites are Cleaning Montage, Wonderful Life, Jake’s House and Your Mother’s Estate – which, far from the sleigh bells-infused score one might expect, have unmistakable elements of folk to them.

“These were really fun to do,” says Taylor. “These are the ones with a little more rhythm. It's a very folksy score for a Christmas movie, I would say, which was something we discussed early on – to have this home grown feeling in addition to the sweeping Christmas strings. 

"We really wanted to get to the heart of the matter. The first thing I said to Charles after I watched the film was just how adult it felt – it's not a teenage love story. I think it speaks to a lot of different age groups, so we wanted to bring a little bit of maturity to it as well. So a little less strings and a little more folksy acoustic guitar.”

Christmas films are heartwarming; it's about finding that sense of familiarity.

In terms of the trickiest parts to score, Taylor shares that any scenes where characters fall out are often the ones that have her spending more time considering the best way to approach them.

“I don't know whether that's just my non-confrontational nature, but sometimes it takes a little bit to really get to the heart and the meaning of these things or reconciliations,” she considers. 

“Also I have no ego about keeping things dry,” she adds on whether it’s ever tempting to over-score a dramatic or impactful scene in a film like this. “Sometimes we'll try something and it's like, ‘Yeah, that's not working, let's try something else’. Then when we take the music out it's like, ‘Oh, that's why we weren't finding the right tone for it, because it didn't need it at all’. Silence is actually a very useful spotting technique.”

Taylor will instinctively reach for different instruments to get her initial ideas down depending on what she feels most effectively resonates with the voice of a particular character. Given its folksy nature, The Noel Diary saw Taylor using an acoustic guitar and her own voice for the initial brush strokes.

“I tried to add vocals to a lot of things just because that's where I came from and that's where my love of music began,” she shares. 

“It's what feels the most organic to me. Sometimes I'll hum a melody at first. There's something so fluid about the movement between notes and sometimes I really want to feel every little cent between one note to the next to feel that connection.”

I went for the Clarett to have more freedom of choice and to be able to quickly get an idea out.

In her home studio Taylor uses a Focusrite Clarett audio interface which boasts 26 inputs and 28 outputs, linked up to her Mac, an API lunchbox with a few preamps, a Kemper amp for guitars and bass and an Arturia Matrix synthesiser.

“I’m very used to Focusrite now from working with Christopher Lennertz on Bad Moms, who uses their Red series interface range, so I was familiar with them and how good their support is,” she explains. 

“I've used Focusrite for a while because I wanted more inputs. I've got various microphones and Kemper amps and other interfaces, and it's great to have everything at the ready at all times instead of having to swap things out. So that was the main reason I went for the Clarett initially – to have more freedom of choice and to be able to quickly get an idea out without having to worry about fumbling with wires and losing it in that time. Focusrite has always been really stable, reliable and dependable for me.”

The Clarett incorporates high quality Clarett analogue preamplifiers with a unique Air function, which subtly modifies a preamp’s frequency response to model the impedance and resonance characteristics of Focusrite’s classic transformer-based ISA mic preamps. It’s one of Taylor’s favourite features.

“I have Air mode on more often than not. It just adds more life to any sound. It's one of those things where it's better to take more in, and then if you want to filter some out later, that's fine. It's great to have the whole gamut of sound available and it adds more life, emotion and presence, I think.”

The interface’s accompanying software, Focusrite Control, allows for a minimal amount of interaction, letting Taylor configure the Clarett with signal routings appropriate for the most common recording tasks.

“It’s important because I can change things and I don't have to run over to the side of the room to turn things on or off or adjust levels,” she shares. 

“I just do it all on the app – the ease of use and consistency is really important. When you have things that don't work…you don't realise how much time you're saving until you lose that time. The sounds are always clean and consistent, and having a stable workforce is integral to meeting deadlines,” she smiles.

The Noel Diary image credits: KC Bailey/Netflix.