Sean Anders said he never expected to write, direct and produce a film inspired by his own life’s experiences. But he did just that in his new film “Instant Family.”
Sitting casually alongside consultant Maraide Green inside Chicago’s Park Hyatt hotel, Anders doesn’t come across as the sort of guy who’s written some of the most popular comedies released in recent years, such as “Horrible Bosses 2” and “We’re the Millers.” Wearing a plaid shirt with a pair of worn jeans, he’s far from the prototypical image of a Hollywood filmmaker who flaunts their success with an air of condescension and designer threads — and his thoughts on what inspired him to tackle his latest project prove he really is quite unpretentious.
“Instant Family” combines humor and heartbreak around the story of Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie Wagner (Rose Byrne) after they decide to adopt kids through the foster care system. As they start to attend classes for soon-to-be foster parents, they’re introduced to two insightful and often hilariously honest social workers, portrayed by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer, who show them the ropes of foster care.
Upon attending an adoption fair, Pete and Ellie meet the spunky and strong-willed 15-year-old Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and decide they want to adopt her. But little do they know Lizzy comes with two adorable, but rowdy, younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Through a series of sometimes funny and other times difficult situations, Pete and Ellie quickly realize adopting foster kids can have its challenges — but its rewards outweigh them all.
The film is inspired partly by Anders’ own experiences as a foster parent. Like Ellie and Pete, Anders said he and his wife attended an adoption fair and met a 15-year-old girl with two younger siblings who stole their hearts. Anders said those kids, who are now his adopted children, took him and his wife on a whirlwind journey through the highs and lows of foster care.
However, it wasn’t until some years after he adopted his children that Anders had the idea to capture his experiences on film. Anders said his writing partner, John Morris, who previously collaborated with him on other films, including “Horrible Bosses 2” and “We’re the Millers,” helped him fully realize the vision for “Instant Family.”
“I really didn’t know what the process was going to be and then when we started talking about it — the sort of tone of it — it seemed odd to do it as a comedy, which is what we do, but John said ‘Well, so many of the stories that you’ve told me are really funny, I mean, some of them are heartbreaking, too, but so many are really funny,’” Anders said. “So that was where it all started.”
When it came to casting the film’s characters, in particular the role of Pete, Anders’ first thought fell on Mark Wahlberg. Anders said he thought Wahlberg had the perfect persona to capture the essence of Pete’s character.
“I know that Mark can do everything,” Anders said. “When you think of his comedy in ‘The Other Guys’ or his drama in ‘The Fighter,’ he can do it all. So, I sent him this email … He called me the very next morning and said ‘Yes,’ immediately, and that never happens with movie stars.”
Anders said writing the film required digging through his own memories and stories of countless other families. As he and Morris began to tackle the film’s storyline, they started compiling stories from various families in order to create an authentic account of foster care adoption.
According to Anders, the writing process was daunting and difficult because they had so many genuine, inspiring accounts, which couldn’t all make it onto the screen. He said gathering these accounts into one cohesive story was one of the hardest parts of producing this film.
“At one point John and I had index cards all over the floor of our office and we just had to start going through it and just getting rid of, you know, the things that we didn’t have room to use, and that was a really difficult part of the process — trying to tighten it up,” Anders said.
After sitting down with a group of teenage girls who had been through the foster care system, Anders met the film’s consultant, Maraide Green. Upon speaking with Green, Anders decided he wanted to bring her into the production process. He began sending her drafts of the script in order to get feedback on the accuracy of the events and characters being depicted in the film.
Anders said Green helped him realize Lizzy’s character in the film and became a vital component of the film’s production.
“We were really struck by Maraide when we sat with them because we already had a rough idea in mind of who this character was, and she reminded her of us a little bit,” Anders said. “Maraide was smart. She was on her way to UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], and she was very poised and was very sort of okay talking about her experience, so she immediately became our buddy.”
Anders stressed the importance of making the film as unflinching and realistic as possible by not romanticizing any of its characters or neglecting the trauma that foster kids often must endure. He said he wanted to make the film authentic yet heartfelt without instilling audiences with feelings of fear and pity toward kids in the system.
“My whole goal was to tell a more complete story about a family so that we wouldn’t shy away from those more difficult elements, but where we can get into the laughter and the joy and the love that comes from a family being created in that way,” Anders said.
After seeing the film for the first time, Green said it felt authentic and accurately depicted experiences of children in foster care.
“I feel like it was accurate because there are a lot of struggles in the beginning just adjusting to ‘Oh, this is your family now,’ but it’s those struggles that really make you bond and connect and really make you into the family that you end up having,” Green said.
“Instant Family” succeeds in delivering a heartwarming, sentimental look at love, life and family. While the film explores some of the darker aspects of the foster care system, its genuine, unfiltered perspective should touch audiences, regardless of their life experiences.
For Green, it was fulfilling to help make a film with the potential to touch people’s lives.
“It’s been really rewarding because those were some of the worst times of my childhood, but then we transformed it and made it into this great movie that’s going to help so many other people, so I’m so happy to be a part of it,” Green said.
“Instant Family,” rated PG-13, hits theaters Nov. 16.