Sean Anders (director of Daddy’s Home and Hot Tub Time Machine) is the real deal. After adopting three kids, he’s using his platform and skill to change the narrative on foster care. In Instant Family (which he directed and co-wrote with John Morris) he doesn’t turn the messy realities of fostering and adoption into a gut-wrenching family drama. Instead, he uses comedy to tell an inspired-by-true-events story about how anyone can open their home and their hearts. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne as new foster parents Pete and Ellie, plus Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as a pair of social workers, Instant Family is in theaters everywhere.
RELEVANT sat down with Anders to talk about the reception to Instant Family and his personal way into the movie.
Recently, you did a screening for pastor’s wives in Las Vegas. How was that experience for you?
I had no idea what to expect. There are some edgier elements to the movie—it is PG-13—and I thought that audience would really connect with the characters and the message, but I didn’t know for sure. Ultimately it was one of the best screenings we’ve had. It was 450 women in a room and they were losing their minds. It was really fun to watch the movie with them.
You have a Christian couple in the movie that you take some light-hearted jabs at, and a little bit later you have the main characters praying around the table. Was that intentional for you to have that contrast and show some different sides of faith?
As you know, Mark [Wahlberg] is a man of really deep faith, and Mark has kids that are around the same age [as the kids in the movie]. We felt like that sort of grace around the table at dinner was a very relatable thing, and to bring the kids into that was interesting to us.
With the Christian couple, what we were really doing with that was setting them up as this kind of archetype, but then to flesh them out and make them a little bit more real. That’s what happens when you go through the writing process. You meet all these people from different walks of life, and when you first meet them, they do kind of feel like archetypes. But then as you get to know them, and you have the shared goal of opening up your homes to kids, they become more like real people to us.
There was a teenage girl you met at a foster fair who inspired Lizzy (played by Isabela Moner). Did you see a lot of that girl in Isabela?
I didn’t get much of a chance to get to know that teenager. But she seemed great, and she seemed smart, and she seemed together. When we started with Lizzie, we wanted a girl who was immediately unique, with an emotional intelligence to her. This young woman named Maria Green was our Lizzie consultant. She was a young lady who grew up in foster care and was adopted as a teenager. She really helped us dial in that story and her family as well.
Is that kind of consulting and research common in the way you make movies?
Well no, it’s not that common in my world, because there’s only so much research you can do for Hot Tub Time Machine. But in this case, it was a really specific world with people who experience life from a different angle than most of us knew.
I had a really good sense of how Pete and Ellie felt at any given moment, because so much of it was inspired by my own experience. But when it came to the kids—and specifically when it came to some of the elements of the story that didn’t come from my life—the families, kids and social workers we met with were invaluable. They let me call anytime. I’d be in the middle of writing a scene and I would just call somebody in the middle of the day, and they would be at work and they would pick up and talk to me for 45 minutes about the scene.
In your life, how long did it take for you and your kids to feel like a family?
It’s different for everybody. Just like every family, there’s an evolution that’s going on at all times. I think it took us about six months from the time the kids came to live with us before we really felt like a family.
I think at that time, it’s almost like the beginning of a relationship where there’s so much that’s new and exciting. Eventually it got to the point where we were just parents like any other parents, and they were just our kids, in a wonderful way.
Do you remember the first time one of the kids referred to you as their dad?
Our daughter was three years old when she moved in. She was very emotionally sophisticated at that age. She would very pointedly not call me daddy. When we would put her to bed at night, we would say “Goodnight, sweetheart. I love you.”
She’d say “Goodnight, mommy. I love you. Goodnight. Sean.” It was brutal.
The only time I could get a hug out of her was if she had a nightmare, so if I would wake up at one o’clock in the morning and hear her having a nightmare, I jumped out of bed and ran to get my hug. Of course, she wouldn’t remember it in the morning, but then when we were putting her to bed and she did call me daddy – it was like it was in the movie. I don’t think it was an event for her. I don’t even know if she realized in the moment that was a new thing, but I sure did.
The movie does feature some characters who disagree with what Pete and Ellie are doing. Did you hear any pushback as you were looking to adopt?
When people who love you hear you’re going to adopt kids out of foster care, they have your best interests in mind, but unfortunately their brains immediately go to these places:
“That might be really difficult.”
“You don’t know who those kids are.”
“You don’t know where they come from.”
“They’re not your blood.”
They’re trying to protect you, so their hearts are in the right place. But what they’re essentially doing is they’re standing in the way of good kids who need families. I wanted to call that out because it’s such a common experience. Kids that are in care are just kids like any other kids. They need love, and parents, and families, but they also have a lot of love to give. They’re not these people to be feared.