Interview: Filmmaker Sean Anders on How His Own Adoption Experience Influenced Instant Family

The cynical among us (you know who you are) will view a movie like Instant Family and think it’s some sort of propaganda material, encouraging selfish would-be parents to consider adopting or fostering children in a style similar to the way director/co-writer Sean Anders and his wife did a few years ago. Anders is the successful screenwriter and director of such works as Horrible Bosses 2Sex Drive and, most relevant to this discussion, the two Daddy’s Home movies, both of which starred Mark Wahlberg and featured extended families. The process for Anders and his wife was a sometimes painful but ultimately rewarding experience, in which the couple brought home three siblings as foster kids who they eventually adopted.

Instant Family Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Drawing from Anders trials and tribulations, Instant Family is about couple Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne), who decide that they are far too selfish to have kids but are curious about the foster-to-adopt process that is having a meet-and-greet event nearby. It’s hosted by social workers played by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro. The open house comes in conjunction with a very frank conversation between Pete and Ellie about how they are exactly the wrong people to be parents, but once the idea is embedded in their collective brain, they can’t help but consider the real possibility of taking in a child, or in this case a teenager (Isabela Moner) and her two younger siblings (Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz).

The film is sweet, charming, and surprisingly honest about the pitfalls and heartbreaks of the adoption process. I sat down with Sean Anders recently in Chicago, where he was accompanied by Maraide Green, a young woman who as a teenager went through the foster-to-adoption process and was a consultant on those elements of the screenplay. (Anders and his wife did not end up adopting a teenager, although when they first entered the program, they did try in a manner similar to what is shown in the film.) Please enjoy our conversation…

I’m aware of your history and how it relates to this story, but why do you think it’s important to tell this story right now?

Sean Anders: The idea came up a couple of years ago. I have a writing partner named John Morris. When you’re living something, it just seems like your life, and a lot of times it doesn’t occur to you that it’s more interesting than you think it is. John and I get together almost every day, and we talk about our lives, and John said at one point "This would be a really good topic for a movie." And he didn’t know anything about the process, and honestly I didn’t either, so that’s where it started. We started talking about how when I got into the orientation, I didn’t know what they were going to say. I didn’t know they were going to say you had to take eight weeks of classes or how they matched people with these kids, and I certainly didn’t know what it was going to be like to have these kids come into our house for the first time.

So we started talking about that, and I got really excited about the idea because now that this was part of my life, I noticed more and more how even some of the best movies made on this topic send people away with these feelings of fear and pity toward kids in the system. And I thought John and I were uniquely qualified to tell a different and more complete story, because all of the families I met with, we all have our difficult and hard times, but there’s so much laughter and love and joy in it as well, and that doesn’t come across a lot. Or if it does, it’s only that, and they don’t touch on the trauma or the difficulty.

It also give an example of people trying to be just a little bit better. This couple recognizes that they’re a little bit selfish, and that’s a wonderful message right now: "Think about other people for a second."

SA: There’s also some hubris involved in that too, because my wife and I, once we started getting into the process, we did have those moments of “Aren’t we wonderful?” But then it became really difficult, and then we started feeling selfish again: “Maybe we shouldn’t try to be wonderful.”

You have assembled—not just your five main cast members—the coolest group of supporting players around them, from Margo Martindale to Julie Hagerty, Tom Segura, Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer. It seems painstakingly assembled, whereas in another film, they might just throw in a few semi-familiar faces and not think twice about it.

SA: Thank you for saying that, because it was painstakingly assembled. We took every decision really seriously, and some of the people we went out to we went after so hard. For example, Julie Hagerty, who plays Grandma Jan, she was on an HBO show that she was finishing, and it wasn’t going to work with her schedule, but I was so determined to have her play this role that we contorted our schedule and moved days around to get her. We went after Margo so hard, and I think she was on some other project as well, and we worked around her schedule. Every choice was slaved over.

Tig and Octavia are prime examples because they’re almost leads here. You could have told this story from their perspective if you’d wanted to, about having these potential parents always coming to them for different reasons, sometimes dropping out. Maraide, how active are the social workers during this process? Are they always this hands on?

Maraide Green: Yes. In my experience with social workers, I would call them all the time. They’re the liaison because I wouldn’t know what my parents were like yet. So if I had any question that I was too afraid to ask the parents or I didn’t like where I was or if I wanted to get moved, I would always call my social workers to move me. So they are very active, not only talking to the kids but also the parents.

Obviously, these two actors are both such funny people. What was the important message that you wanted to get across about people in that role in this process?

SA: In my limited experience with it, the social workers are very overworked, underpaid, and they have big hearts, trying to juggle a lot of different kids and families. And they all have different approaches, different vibes, like we all do. In my case, we had two social workers who were this mix-matched odd couple, good cop/bad cop—they were very different than the characters in the movie, but like Maraide said, they were such a presence through the whole process. Usually you have one lead social worker, and in our case, she was with us every step of the way, and they’re very important to the process.

In terms of casting your child actors, it would almost seem counterintuitive to cast Isabela in another movie with Mark Wahlberg  in a role that is not dissimilar from the other movie. So what was it that convinced you to end up with her?

SA: That’s actually a great story; I’m glad you asked that question. It was the first day we were casting, and we’d read just a couple of people when our casting director, Sheila Jaffe, said “We have this young woman who’s going to Skype in,” and that’s always really difficult for actors to Skype or FaceTime to audition. And then she said, “This is Isabela, who was in the Transformers movie,” and I immediately said what you said: “That’s not going to work. She was just in a movie with Mark where she played kind of a daughter figure,” and I was bummed, but I thought “Well, let’s see what she does.” And we sat down around the computer, and by the time she was done, we were all in tears. It was really funny moment of us wiping our tears away going, “That was pretty good.” And then it went from “This is weird” to being “How do we get this kid in our movie because she’s so great.” And we even called Wahlberg and said “You have to call her mom to make sure that she does this movie because she’s that good.”

A lot of films made about this subject take a very serious tone and emphasize the painful aspects of the process, and clearly you wanted to let people know that there are lasting, fun memories. In the writing, was that a tougher balance to strike than we might think?

SA: From the beginning, we knew we would never want to make a movie about foster care adoption that just made a joke out of it or laughed off everything or sugar coated it in anyway, so we wanted to strike this balance. The reality of the situation, when kids are coming into your home and they don’t know you and you don’t know them, and they don’t love you and you don’t love them, and you’re trying to pretend you’re this family that you’re really not yet, it is an awkward, chaotic, frustrating, bizarre situation for everybody involved. And there is a lot of difficulty and pain that comes along with that.

But it’s also very funny because it’s a strange situation. So we tried to start there with the comedy, and from the very first draft to the very last tweaks in the edit bay, what you’re describing is what we were focused on the most. The first time we put the movie in front of an audience, I was really nervous because of this. I didn’t want it to feel preachy or like some sort of public service announcement, but I also didn’t want it to feel glib or that we’re making fun at the expense of this important thing. We wanted to play it in the right zone, and the first time we showed it to an audience, they responded really well, and we knew we were on the right track.

Instant Family Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

For Mark Wahlberg, you have become his Peter Berg for comedies. How has he changed over the course of the films you’ve made with him as a comedic actor? What is he doing better now that he didn’t used to do as well?

SA: With each movie that we’ve done together, Mark has shown different gears, and that’s what I love about working with him. In the first Daddy’s Home, he was the coolest guy in the room; he had to play that guy—the tough, cool guy. And then part of the reason we were all even willing to do a second Daddy’s Home is because the main characters changed, where Will was this insecure mess in the first movie, he was almost smug about his relationship with his dad. And Mark, who had been this unflappable cool guy in the first movie, once his dad was introduced, he became more of the protagonist in the second movie and back on his heels, more frazzled.

With this movie, I think people are seeing a version of Mark like they’ve never seen before. In real life, Mark is a dad, he has a teenage daughter and other kids as well, he shares a lot of the experiences of the character in the movie. He is this guy who grew up in a tough neighborhood and he’s got a hard exterior, but he’s a guy who really cares about kids and about his faith, so he was able to bring a lot of those real elements—the softer side of who he is—to this character.

This is Rose Byrne’s sweet spot. I think she’s an undervalued comedic presence. She’s gone toe-to-toe with some of the funniest people on the planet and matched them. But she’s also this tremendous dramatic actress. So this film hits that perfect spot for her gifts. Talk about landing on her for this role.

SA: We wanted to pair Mark with someone he hadn’t worked with before, and we had to find someone who could cover the gamut of emotions that Ellie has to go through, because she has to be angry and morose and funny. There aren’t that many people you can go to for that, and Rose, like you said, she’s underrated, I think, because she has been paired with these comedy powerhouses. I think sometimes people think because she was with Seth Rogen, he elevated her performance, because they think of Rogen as a straight-up comedic presence, and they don’t think of her that way. I think this movie is going to change all of that, because she carries so much of it and is able to break your heart and be hilarious in the next moment. What she did with her performance resulted in them having this amazing chemistry—you never know when you’re going to get that.

How much can you look at this film and say “Only the names have been changed”?

SA: Emotionally, it’s all dead on. But the story is a fictional tale that is the combined experiences of my own and these other families I met along the way. I’ll tell you one thing that encapsulates the reality versus the fiction of it. My wife and I really went to an adoption fair, like they do in the movie; the teenagers were off to the side. It was really heartbreaking; we didn’t have any intention of going anywhere near the teenagers because we were scared of that too, but we wound up meeting this teenage girl at the fair, and she seemed great. She has a younger brother and sister, so reluctantly we put them on our sheet and we were matched with them. That all happened.

Where it diverged , in our story, the social workers called us a couple weeks later as we were trying to prepare for this and said, “It’s not going to work out. These kids have been in care for four years. This girl is really holding out hope that her mom is coming for her, so she’s refusing the placement.” So that real person became the inspiration for the Lizzy character. In my real life, the social workers called back shortly thereafter and said, “But there are these other three kids,” and those kids became my children and they were six, three and a year and a half at the time. And that’s where Maraide comes into the story. I really wanted to include a teenager in the story, but because I hadn’t adopted a teenager, John and I sat down with a bunch of adopted families that had adopted teen girls. The next night, we sat down with the girls themselves, and that’s where we met Maraide, and a lot of their stories became a part of the Lizzy thread.

What do you both want people thinking about when they leave the theater?

MG: I feel like there are a lot of stereotypes with foster care that are not true at all. People think that kids who grew up in the system are so messed up and have all of these issues, but really there are a lot of great kids that don’t have the support of a family or have a way to carry out what they want to do. I hope that people see that there are all of these great kids with all of this amazing potential and want to help them.

SA: When you go to a dinner party and announce that you’re pregnant, nobody says “You better be careful because that kid might end up being a drug dealer.” And it could happen.

These films that you’re made with Mark are all about unconventional families. Is this your thing now? Are you looking for other ways to tell stories about this subject?

SA: I don’t know. John and I are both family men, with kids. You just write what you know, and that’s what we’ve been attracted to, those themes. I don’t that they’re all going to be so family centric, but I think there are going to elements of family in everything.

Are there further adventures of this family? Is there more to tell about these characters?

SA: There are so many stories, and my hope is, first and foremost, I want this movie to change the narrative about kids in foster care and how these families are created. And the best way for that to happen is if the movie is a great, big hit. So if the movie is a hit, I will definitely get a call from somebody about there being another one, so I’m hoping that I get that call.

It was wonderful to meet you both. Thank you.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.