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Director Sean Anders Talks About His Own ‘Instant Family’

Interview with Sean Anders, director of "Instant Family"
On the set with director Sean Anders.
(Paramount Pictures)
INTERVIEW
Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne’s comedy/drama film, Instant Family appears to be an instant hit with both critics and audiences alike. Sure, not everyone is a fan, but I suspect that people don’t actually have kids themselves. Those that do, appreciate all of the chaos and (at times) the corniness that is a part of family life. In the movie, Wahlberg and Byrne play a couple who want to start a family, but sort of feel that they are a bit old to be just starting and find themselves looking into foster care adoption and end up adopting a teen girl and her two younger siblings. Unrealistic you say? Try telling that to Sean Anders who co-wrote the script and directed the movie. He lived it. Well, mostly.

I met Anders last week to talk about Instant Family just before the film opened and my biggest question for him was how much of this film was actually based on real life. “A lot of it,” he said and then went on telling me a story about how his family came to be.

“First of all, my story starts exactly like the character in the movie. I really did make this joke to my wife one day about I feel like I’d be an old dad now, why don’t we just adopt a 5-year-old. That all happened. In our true story, we went to an adoption fair just like they do in the movie – it’s a real thing. It’s bizarre. Teenagers were off to the side and we were afraid of them just like everyone else.

"We wound up meeting a teenage girl who had a younger brother and sister. She really made an impression on us and we reluctantly, with a lot of trepidation, wrote her and her brother’s and sister’s names down on our sheet and we were matched with them. And then they went home and we went home and we were going to wait for the paperwork and all these things to happen.

"But, here is where it diverges from the film. Our social worker called and said that these kids have been in [foster] care for four years and this teen girl is really holding out hope that her mom is still coming for her, so she is refusing the placement. So, that never happened. But then, they called me shortly after and said, by the way, there are these other three kids and so those kids ... they are my kids.

Interview with Sean Anders, director of "Instant Family"
Mark Wahlbert, Rose Byne,
Isabela Moner, Juliana Gamiz and
Gustavo Quiroz (Paramount Pictures)
“At that time they were six, three and 18-months-old. But when the time came to make a movie about this process, I really wanted to include a teenager because teenagers are the most misunderstood and I never forgot that girl. So, that girl was the genesis of the Lizzie character. Then, what we did, we sat down with a lot of other adopted families who have adopted teen girls and we also sat down with the girls themselves and we combined different stories from my own stories and their stories.”

I asked Sean is there are any key moment in the movie that matched his story in real life and it surprised me a bit when he said, “All of it.”

“Yeah. I mean, either my story or other people’s stories. There is a really cute moment where Mark calls the kids to dinner for the first time and Rose says “That sounds so crazy coming out of your mouth” and then they kiss and the kids are standing there going “Ooo! Kiss again!” And that scene played out exactly like that in my own home on the first night my kids were there.”

Sean then talks about another scene where Rose brushes the teen's hair when Lizzy wakes up to find that it’s all tangled. Lizzie reluctantly lets her foster mother brush it. It’s one of the more tear-jerking scenes in the movie and it too was inspired by a real story. One of the social worker consultants for the movie shared that the story came from a family that she had been working with.

One my favorite scenes in Instant Family is when Mark and Rose have had enough of their kids and begin to talk about how they need to get them out of their house. After they fantasize a bit they just sigh and say to each other, “we’re never going to do that are we?” And that scene too was inspired by real life.

“I’m not proud of it, but I had that conversation for real,” says Sean. “Because you’re just so lost, frustrated and scared that you are just like, what the hell were we thinking? There’s got to be some way back to…” He trails off for a second then says, “My life was kinda awesome before I got my kids. I was finally making some money for the first time and I could sleep in late if I wanted to. Things were good and then it was like, ‘What was I thinking?’ but it turned out to be a good call.”

There are two subtle scenes where the family prays before dinner. Once at Thanksgiving before the kids movie and once before dinner on Christmas Eve. I asked Anders about these scenes because you don’t see too many families praying over their meals on screen these days. Although he tells me that he isn’t very comfortable talking about his own personal faith, he did say that faith was something that has been around his whole life and he wanted it be a part of this story.

“Although it’s not as much a part of my own life, I feel that is a part of a lot of the lives of people that I meet and people in my own family,” he says. “I feel like my family is a little bit in-between all of that stuff.”

Sean says that when he and his wife went to the foster adoption orientation, the classes and the support group, just like in the film, it felt a little bit like church.

“One thing that I loved about the experience was that there were all kinds of different people that came together. A lot of times, people from completely different walks of life, but everybody had the same goal which was a love-based goal for a lack of a better way to put it. And it did have this kind of feeling of church to it a little bit in a sense it was a group of people getting together and spending a lot of time talking about love and it does create this community that was really interesting.”

While it’s Lizzy character that gets a lot of attention in the film, it was little Juliana Gamiz who stole the show for me. Cute as a button in one scene and then a holy terror the next, which isn’t a whole lot different from kids you see acting up in the local grocery store. I asked Sean how he was able to get such great acting from her.

“When we were looking for kids for the Lita the leader role, were looking for a kid with a big personality and we found Juliana and she certainly had it,” says Anders. “Juliana was just was a really good little listener. You could really play games with her and get her to scream. She could even bring herself to cry by first pretending to cry. We would talk a lot about, ‘Did you ever pretend to cry to get your brother in trouble?’ You know, that kind of thing. And then we say, ‘Okay, let’s see your best cry – like we’re really going to get him in trouble this time.’ And so, you play games with the kids and you get them to kind of find those places.”

It turns out that Juliana was also pretty good at improv too. In one scene when the family is visiting Big Lots, Lita freaks out about a doll that she wants and tells the cashier, “Scan it! Hurry up! Scan it!”

“We didn’t tell her to say that,” says Sean. “That was all her.”

When I asked about what the biggest challenge was in making the film, Anders didn’t hesitate.

Interview with Sean Anders, director of "Instant Family"
(IMDB)
“It was threading that needle between the comedy and drama,” he says. “Because the subject matter is so important and can be pretty heavy, but it was really important to me to find the laughter through the tears in all of it and to keep the laughter moving throughout the movie so that it would be an enjoyable experience and because there is so much laughter in my life.”

It’s been seven years since Sean’s kids entered his home. Now at the ages of 13, nine and eight, he tells me that things are going great.

“I’ve been doing this press tour and my family caught up with me in New York and they got to see their first Broadway show and then they came with me to three cities and now they are back home and I’m going to see them tonight for the first time in a week.”

Although Anders manages to cover just about everything a foster family can face in real life throughout the film, I ask him if there was anything else he’d like would-be parents and others to know.

“I would want them to know that these kids can seem scary, but they’re not and in my mind, that’s the main takeaway from the film. Kids are just kids. And they’re good kids. And they need love and they need parents. And they need the things that we all take for granted.”
But the Sean then stresses about other important aspect about adopting foster kids that some leaders forget to say about the kids themselves.

“They also have a lot to give and I think a lot of times when people talk about foster care and adoption they, rightly so, focus on what you could do for some kids and [how you can] provide the kids a family, but they don’t talk about enough about what those kids do for you. And, it’s a lot. I mean, they are tough on you a lot of times too, but, they really bring a lot to your world. So, I’d want people to know that. And I don’t mind saying that my kids are the best thing that has ever happened to me.”


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