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Q&A with ‘Instant Family’ writer and director Sean Anders

November 19, 2018

“Instant Family,” written and directed by Sean Anders, who gave us classic comedies such as “We’re The Millers” and “Hot Tub Time Machine,” brings us a realistically heartfelt yet comedic film addressing the topic of adoption.

Starring Rose Byrne as Ellie and Mark Wahlberg as Pete, the couple find themselves as foster parents of three children, one of whom is a teen. The film is inspired by Anders’ own experiences in the adoption process, as well as many other families. The result is an inspiring, eye-opening film filled with love and laughs.

I had a chance to sit down with Anders and his assistant, who contributed to the concept, Maraide Green, as she was a part of the foster system until she was adopted as a teenager.

Pamela Powell (PP): Sean, what inspired you to tell this story?

Sean Anders (SA): When I was going through the [adoption] process, every step of it was news to me. I just felt like the more we (John Morris, co-writer), talked about it, most of the movies that focus on foster care are these gut-wrenching dramas that reinforce these stereotypes about these kids. ... My story of my own family has all these ups and downs and twists and turns and hard times and good times, but it’s the best thing I ever have done and my kids are the best thing that ever happened to me.

I wanted to tell a more complete story that doesn’t shy away from those difficult areas but gets into all the laughter, love and joy that’s very real in these situations.

PP: In the film, there’s an “adoption fair.” Is this truly something that happens?

SA: My wife and I really went to an adoption fair as they do in the movie. There is such a thing, and the teenagers were off by themselves just like in the movie. And we did not want teenagers. We were too afraid of that because we didn’t even feel as though we were necessarily ready to be parents, let alone suddenly parents of teenagers, but we wound up inadvertently meeting a teen girl at that event, and she had a younger brother and sister, and we just thought she was great. ...

With a lot of trepidation, we put them on our sheet, and then we went home to kind of wrap our heads around this terrifying idea, and after about three weeks ... we felt like we were ready, and we were just waiting for the social workers to get back to us.

She called and said these kids have been in care for four years, and the teen girl was really holding out hope her mother was coming for her, so she’s refusing the placement. That was the genesis of the Lizzie (Isabela Moner) character.

What happened in our real life was, a short time after, the social workers called back and said, ‘By the way, there are these other three kids,’ and those are now my kids who I love so dearly. I never forgot that [teenage] girl, and when we made the movie, I really wanted to include a teenager because they’re the most misunderstood. ... We sat down with a lot of families that had adopted teenage girls, and that’s how we met Maraide.

PP: Maraide, tell me about meeting Sean.

Maraide Green (MG): I met Sean three years ago. He showed me the script, and I read it and gave him notes kind of just showing what I went through and what I thought was relatable and what I thought was sugar coated and needed more. … And then, he called me and said we’re making the movie, and we’re bringing you with us to Atlanta [to film].

It breaks down the stereotypes of kids who grew up in foster care that they’re not broken; they’re not messed up; they’re not destined to be drug addicts. They’re actually kids who can offer so much, but they just don’t have the opportunity to because they don’t have a family, and they don’t have anyone to support them.

PP: So, you contribute to the Lizzie character, Maraide?

MG: It’s more the emotions than specific instances, but I relate to Lizzie so much. Now that I’m a little bit older, I can look back and think, “Wow, I was a handful.”

SEAN: There is one thing that is very specific to Maraide. The scene in which Rose is slamming cabinet doors and Lizzie has left a mess and shows up wearing this outfit is directly from a conversation I had with Maraide’s mom.

PP: You perfectly balance drama and comedy, and this film is a bit of a departure from movies such as “We’re the Millers.”

SA: The premise itself, it doesn’t seem like it on the surface, actually has so much comedy baked into it, the reality. From the very first draft, to the time we were finishing the movie — that balance of the comedy, and the drama and of walking that line throughout the movie was our No. 1 priority.

And the first time I showed it to an audience, I was absolutely terrified to show it to an audience, I thought if to the audience it feels too heavy and dark, then any comedy is going to feel weird. If it’s too light and sweet, then we’ll lose the gravity of the situation, and we found the audience really responded to it right away and the balance was there.

PP: What is the take-away message you hope audiences will have?

SA: When people hear the words “foster care,” it brings these feelings of fear and pity, and I want people to go through this journey with Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne), and when they come out on the other side, they have a better understanding of how these families are formed and who these kids really are.

People sometimes have the tendency to warn [others], ‘I don’t know if you should get into that,’ and it’s something that, if somebody has the inclination to get into that, they absolutely should.

MG: I feel similar, that people shouldn’t be afraid because yes, I grew up in the system, but I am not at all defined by that. That has really nothing to do with who I am as a person, and I feel like people need to realize that. These kids are great kids, [and] I’m hoping this movie sheds some light on that.

PP: I also am adopted, and this film enabled me to see the process more clearly from a parent’s perspective and also made me appreciate what my mom and dad did for me.

SA: Those kinds of comments mean the world to me. I don’t think I realized that when we were making the movie, [but] it’s this by-product. Kids, similar to Maraide, I shouldn’t call her a kid, but who say it has helped them to understand what their parents were going through and, obviously, it helps them understand what the kids were going through.

“Instant Family” opens on Friday.

Pamela Powell, Film Critic

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