Director Sean Anders was in Boston recently to talk about his new film Instant Family. The film is based on Sean’s family and his experience adopting three children through the foster care system. It stars Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Spencer, Isabela Moner, Tig Notaro, Margo Martindale and more.
Sean was asked if he had any hesitations sharing his own personal experiences with the world. Sean Anders, “Not really. From the beginning the idea was that we were going to tell a fictional story that was inspired by my own story, but also by the stories of a lot of people we met along the way. The desire to bring this (adopting through foster care) out into the light definitely overshadowed any fear of exposure. There are things in the movie that are inspired by my own life that I’m not super proud of, but I feel ok about sharing those.”
Sean and his wife adopted kids later in life and explained the thought process of leaning towards adopting. “For a long time I didn’t really make much money. I didn’t feel like we could afford kids because I was never sure if I could pay the rent let alone food and put clothes on other people. When you get into the movie business, it feels like it could fall apart any day. So even when I first got going with it, I wasn’t quite sure how real any of it would be. Once it felt like I was getting a foothold in the business, selling some scripts, things feeling real, I felt like we could start talking about having kids. By then I was 40-41 years old and I made the joke that Pete (Mark Wahlberg’s character) makes in the movie, I don’t want to be one of those old dads who’s too old to throw the ball around by the time the kid’s a teenager. Purely as a joke I said ‘Why don’t we adopt a 5-year-old so it feels like I got cracking 5 years ago?’ My wife was like, ok and I’m like ‘No, no, no that was a joke’. Then she thought about it some more and found a website. We went to an orientation all like in the movie.”
He continued to talk about other scenes in the movie taken directly from his life. “There’s a scene where Mark and Rose are sitting in bed talking about what a terrible mistake they made and how there’s gotta be some way back to the happy life they had before. My wife and I had that conversation. We’ve come to find out that that’s a pretty relatable scene for a lot of adoptive families. (laughing) Even families with biological kids. There’s one, sort of cute moment, it’s a bigger moment than it might seem in the movie when Mark calls the kids to dinner. He says ‘Kids dinner’ and Rose is like ‘What? That sounds crazy.’ And they come in and we kiss and the kids say eww. That exact scene played out in my house the first night we had our kids. It was fun to shoot that scene.”
The national treasure that is Margo Martindale plays Mark’s mom in the film. I asked Sean how similar the Grandma Sandy character is to his mother. “She’s not as over-the-top as that. Grandma Sandy is loosely based on my mom Grandma Sally. Audiences have absolutely loved her and I think the reason that they love her is she does it right from the moment she walks in. She claims the kids immediately and says ‘Anybody messes with you, I have your backs forever’. That’s how my mom is. My mom had a rough childhood herself and she’s always the first one to let kids know they are smart and good enough. Margo comes into the movie like a freight train and it made me so happy the first time we screened it for an audience and they were just roaring over Grandma Sandy.”
The character of Lizzy is actually older than any of his own kids and he talked about why he went with a teen character for the film. “My kids are younger, but what happened was we went to an adoption fair, same as the characters do, and it was exactly what it was in the movie. The teenagers were all off to themselves and we went with no intention of going anywhere near the teenagers. That was too scary for us, but we wound up meeting a teenaged girl and she was really cool and interesting and she had two younger siblings. We wrote their names on our sheet and we got matched with them. They were going to be our kids. We went home and spent a couple of weeks thinking about it and we actually got excited about the idea. Then we got a call from a social worker and she said that the teen girl had been in care for four years and was understandably still connected to her birth mother and she was still holding out hope that her birth mother was still coming back for her. The social worker didn’t think that was very likely, but the girl had turned down the placement for her and her siblings. She wanted to remain available to her mom. So it didn’t happen, but that’s where the Lizzy character was born. We went and met with a lot of adoptive families along the way that had adopted teenagers and teenaged girls in particular. We also met with a lot of kids and adults who had been adopted as teens. Just to finish our story, they called us back and the social worker said there are these other three kids and now those three kids are running around Boston right now.”
Mark Wahlberg has played boxer Micky Ward in The Fighter and Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor so I asked Sean how he feels about Mark portraying him. “Same thing right? (laughing). He’s not really playing me, there’s elements of my wife and I in Mark and Rose in the movie. I would say they both do an incredible job playing adoptive parents, but I wouldn’t say they are playing me and my wife. I wanted Mark’s character to be excitable because I’m excitable. I get keyed up about things I’m really into, but I also get nervous and freaked out by things. I wanted that to be in the character. Mark is so funny when he’s doing that, but yeah I don’t get up at 3:30 in the morning to work out.”
He talked about writing the film and if he had actors in mind. “In this movie the only person we knew we were writing in mind from the beginning was Mark. It wasn’t super specific to Mark because I wasn’t honestly sure if he would be interested, but he was always in my head a little bit for Pete. Then as other people come aboard and you know who it is, if it’s someone with a specific voice like Julie Hagerty, then you go Jan was always this sweet, mousey mom, but now that it’s Julie Hagerty it becomes ten times more fun to rewrite her dialogue. Tig Notaro was really fun to go back and rewrite in more of a Tig tone.”
On Rose Byrne getting attached. “Mark jumped in right away. Mark has met a lot of kids in care in his travels. That got us going so once we had Mark we needed someone who could handle the drama, but also someone who’s crazy funny. We started talking about Rose, Mark had never worked with her and we all think she’s great. When we contacted her about it and what I loved, she asked all the right questions. She doesn’t know me, had never worked with us. She was very deliberate and wanted to know my story and why I wanted to make this movie. Then she jumped in and the first thing she did was sit down with my wife and a bunch of other adoptive moms. She did her homework. When she’s funny she always feels completely authentic. We have this scene where a woman slaps her in the face, she just plays that moment so authentic. If someone really did just deck you in the middle of a conversation I don’t think most people would get up and start swinging. You have to react to it and in those moments she’s so hysterical and grounded.”
If you look at Sean Anders’ resume, it’s full of comedies like That’s My Boy, Daddy’s Home, Horrible Bosses 2 and others. I asked him if his filmmaking style had to change to make a movie that although a comedy, is more serious than previous films. “When you’re doing broad, screwball comedies it’s really fun and I compare it to doing a kung-fu movie. There’s an incredible amount of thought and detail and structure that goes into physical comedy and big comedic set pieces. Much more than I think people realize. The choreography of that is really fun, but it’s a different skill set. This was so much more research and finding the humor in more interesting places. Finding the humor in coming out of scary situations and frustration and awkwardness. We play a lot of the movie in tighter shots. We were really deliberate in transitions to keep things feeling kinetic. Even the way we played with color. We start off with a warmer palette then the tones get a little bit chillier as the characters are getting more lost.”
Instant Family opens November 16th.