Instant Family opens the weekend before Thanksgiving, in time for families to see it together. Based on co-writer and director Sean Anders’ experience adopting foster children, the comedy is a tribute to the laughs and hardships of the system.
Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) decide to adopt instead of having kids. In real life Anders joked about adopting a five-year-old to get a head start, because he was already aging. Pete says that line in the film.
They adopt Lizzie (Isabela Moner) and her siblings Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Juliana Gamiz). After a honeymoon phase, they face a series of emotional crises trying to become a family.
Anders spoke with Monsters and Critics by phone out of New York about his real experience and adapting it for the film Instant Family. Instant Family is now in theaters and you can read our review here, and interview with Byrne here.
WLE: Did you adopt the same combination of a teenage with younger siblings?
Sean Anders: No, I didn’t. It’s inspired by my own story but also the stories of a lot of other families that I met along the way.
The breakdown of the kids was inspired by my wife and I went to an adoption fair just like it’s depicted in the movie. The teenagers were all off on their own just like in the movie.
We did wind up meeting a teenage girl at the adoption fair and met her younger brother and sister. We very reluctantly, because we were scared of adopting a teenager, we wound up putting them on our card and we were matched with them. Then there were a couple of weeks where we were trying to wrap our heads around that decision and doing some reading and some preparation.
Then the social worker called and said this young lady, she had been in care for four years. She was really holding out hope that her birth mother was still coming back for them and she didn’t want to accept the placement for that reason.
That was the genesis of the Lizzie character. We started with that story, and it was important for me to have a teenager in the story.
Just to complete what happened in my own story, when that placement fell apart, my social worker called back and very matter of factly said, “There’s these other three kids.” Those are my kids now. In fact they’re with me in New York City right now on their first trip to New York.
The breakdown in age was very different. Those three kids turned out to be six years old, three years old and a year and a half.
M&C: But you still adopted three at a time?
SA: I did get three siblings right at the same moment.
M&C: Do you know what ever happened with the teenager?
SA: No, I wasn’t really able to get into contact at all. They’re very careful with that stuff in the system.
We tried to send a letter to her after we had heard how she felt about it. We sent her a letter through our social worker that just said, “Okay, if you don’t want it to be an adoptive placement, if you just want it to be a foster placement, however you want to do it we would be okay with that”
Then we just never heard anything back. I have no idea what happened.
M&C: Did that inspire the subplot with the birth mother being a factor in this story?
SA: That and several other stories from families that I had met with. Then particularly, there was a young lady named Maraide Green who we met with during our research phase.
She had been in foster care and had been adopted as a teenager, went through a pretty difficult transition with her family but eventually really became a family with them. Just a really bright, smart, awesome kid who was on her way to UCLA when we met her.
She wound up being our Lizzie consultant throughout the movie, in the writing process and during production. She was with us in Atlanta the whole time. She was really helpful as far as being inside the head of that character.
M&C: You said you actually said the line, “Why don’t we adopt a five-year-old?” Was it satisfying to get that in the film and have Mark Wahlberg say it?
SA: It was. The funny thing is though a lot of people just don’t believe it. They just think, “Nobody would get into foster care with just a dumb joke.” Well, sorry, I did.
M&C: Was there a Mr. Frederickson in your childhood?
SA: I didn’t kill anybody but I did have a friend growing up who had a really old dad. That’s who I was thinking of when I talked about that.
I don’t know if you ever had that friend where you go over and go, “Oh, your grandfather’s here.” It’s like, “No, that’s my dad!” and you’re like oh, sorry.
M&C: When they’re looking at the adoption website, do all those photos have to be stock photos?
SA: No, no. All those pictures that you’re seeing are real kids that were adopted out of the system. None of them are currently in foster care.
Just to be clear, there might be one or two stock photos because when they were building the effect, I think they had photos. I think we replaced 95% of them but there may still be one or two, I can’t say for sure.
Either all or almost all of those pictures are kids that have been adopted. We couldn’t show kids that are still in the system obviously because there are legal ramifications.
We had families who sent in pictures of their kids and a lot of those pictures are from when their kids were in care before they were adopted.
WLE: That scene will make a lot of people sad so that’s a great happy epilogue. Those were all kids who found homes.
SA: Yeah, including my own kids are in those pictures.
WLE: Was the foster class based on classes you took?
SA: Yes, absolutely. When you go through the foster care process, you take the class. You’re usually in a group with a bunch of other parents.
The other people that are involved are really diverse and really different from one another and from yourself. The social workers guide you through.
On the other side of it, you also get into the support group. The October character goes to the support group before she has a placement and we did that as well. We went to the support group before we had kids because you can just get ahead of it and learn from other people’s stories as you go.
WLE: Was there a Blind Side mom in your classes?
SA: There kinda was. Actually, she was only in the orientation. She wasn’t in my classes so I don’t know [if she adopted anyone].
From the families that I talked to, a lot of times there is one person or couple that people kind of think, “Uh, I don’t know if that person should get any kids.”
There was one woman, she didn’t have the Blind Side fantasy but she was really oddly specific about what she was looking for. That’s something you learn going through the system.
Just like when you have your own biological kids, it’s not good to put too fine a point on what type of child that you want to get out of the system because it’s not going to happen. Whatever you’re going to get is going to be a surprise to you.
It’s going to be something different. So when they’re drawing the pictures of kids on the board, they’re trying to tell them, “These are your fantasy kids. These are not who you’re going to get.”
Really the point of the October character, apart from having a little fun and doing a riff on The Blind Side, was to show a character who had this oddly specific idea of what she wants and then to see that she’s going to get something very different but it might just work out better that way.
M&C: You weren’t a house flipper like Pete in the movie. Was there a filmmaking analogy to adopting?
SA: There were a lot of things together to create that part of it. My hobby is actually building and design. It’s something that I work on in my spare time and I’m kind of an HGTV junkie myself.
I was actually in the process of renovating a home while we were writing and making the movie. So that’s something I know a few things about and that I enjoy.
But also, the metaphor that’s wrapped up in it that Mark mentions in the beginning of finding a home that’s in disrepair and putting some love into it and making it into a home. I like that Mark’s character used that as a way in, of feeling like oh yeah, this is what I do. I can do this.
M&C: How did it feel to cast your friend from two previous movies, Mark to play you?
SA: To be clear, he wasn’t playing me. That would be very flattering to be played by Mark Wahlberg, but again, the story is a fictional tale that’s inspired by my own story but also other people’s stories.
So I never really felt like Mark was playing me although he did dress like me in the movie. It was amazing because I really wanted Mark from the movie. Even though I knew him from two movies, getting Mark Wahlberg in a movie is no small feat.
The guy gets 10 offers a day, so I sent him a very passionate e-mail about why the movie was so important to me and why I wanted him in it so badly. He called me right away the next morning and just said yes.
He didn’t say, “Let me check with my team or check my schedule and we’ll discuss it.” He actually called me and said yes. He had met kids in the system in his travels and it was something that was important to him too. He was down right away.
M&C: How did you end up casting Joan Cusack for a small role at the end?
SA: That’s actually kind of a story as well. I had a really amazing moment in my career early on where I got to spend about two hours on the phone with John Hughes one day. I’m a huge John Hughes fan.
One of the things that he said to me was, “It’s not the size of a laugh always, but it’s the way a laugh feels.” If you involve the audience emotionally and then turn it with a laugh, they get such a wonderful feeling out of that.
He used as an example the moment in The Breakfast Club where Anthony Michael Hall talks about having a gun in his locker because he’s thinking about killing himself. And then he turns it with the fact that it’s a flare gun. So I’d been thinking about that a lot in the course of making this movie where we’re dealing with certain tragic elements but always trying to come back to the comedy.
In the scene in the end where there’s this random neighbor that just ends up with this big family catharsis happening in her yard and she doesn’t even know who they are, that was always a character that was born out of that John Hughesian idea.
When our casting director suggested Joan Cusack, that sort of brought that whole thing full circle for me. I thought oh my God, who could be better than Joan Cusack?
So I went after her really hard. We only got her for one day and she was in and out, but she was wonderful on set. It was such a thrill for me seeing it with audiences, such a huge reaction to her and that scene.
M&C: Is that Starship song “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” good for instant tears no matter what movie it’s used in?
SA: I don’t know, maybe. In our case it was funny because that had been in the script. We always had this line about the judge saying, “I’m a huge cornball.”
This didn’t happen in my adoption hearing but I would love it if we got that tradition started of playing music during the hearing. So we always had the Starship song in the script.
We always thought of it as a placeholder and just thought, “We’ll just think of something better.” But when our editor cut it into the movie because it was always in the script, the first time we saw it we felt like, “That really works.”
M&C: Was the harder aspect of fostering the normal domestic days, and the crises were easier because it gave everyone something to focus on?
SA: I never thought of it like that but yeah, I guess so. During the harder parts and that transitional time, the thing that makes it so difficult but also lends itself to comedy a little bit is that you have to imagine you have these people in your house who you’re supposed to be parenting and they’re supposed to suddenly be your kids.
But you don’t even know each other and you don’t love each other. They just showed up. So you’re kind of getting to know them and in the process of getting to know them, there’s so much madness.
Even once your family does coalesce and come together and it all becomes this wonderful thing, there’s still a lot of madness in chaos with anybody’s household with kids, but imagine how much more heightened it is when you don’t even feel like they’re your kids yet.
There’s definitely some memories of those times but on the flip side of it, like I said, you get this rare opportunity that a lot of biological families don’t get where you actually get to fall in love with your own kids. I wanted to depict that in the movie as well.
M&C: It’s obviously so hard for the parents in this situations, but is it automatically harder for the kids?
SA: That’s a great question and it’s absolutely harder for the kids. That’s one of the things you have to bear in mind when you’re doing it. That was the point of the scene with the Fernandezes where Pete and Ellie go over there looking for some advice and kind of complaining and frustrated.
Mrs. Fernandez kind of reminds them that whatever it is you’re going through, your kids are going through more. First of all, they’ve been taken out of the one place that made sense to them when they were small and they’ve been put in kind of a cold, hard, strange world where nobody was loving them and they don’t understand why and they don’t understand what’s going on.
What I’ve always said is take any adult, imagine yourself and somebody just shows up in the middle of the night and says, “Hey man, pack your sh*t in a Hefty bag and we’re leaving right now. We’re going to go stick you in somebody else’s house and you’re going to go to a different job tomorrow morning where you don’t know anybody and we’d really appreciate it if you don’t complain too much.”
That would be horrific for any adult to go through. Imagine being a child having to go through it. Then imagine having to go through it over and over again. That’s where these kids come from a lot of times.
When they go into a home with a family, it’s completely understandable why it takes them a long time to trust. Oftentimes these kids have been let down by every grownup they’ve ever met. It really is a great question and a great observation.
M&C: I even think outside the foster system, anything kids are going through we have to remember they’re new at life. They don’t have any previous experience to show them it’s going to work out. You can’t expect them to adapt and adjust like adults do.
SA: Absolutely, and they’re much more emotional beings than we are. As we age, we shift over from being purely emotional to being more logical. They’re still in the height of their emotional brains.
All of these things are happening when their brains are forming all of these emotions. It’s a tough spot for kids to be in.