From the fake family in We’re the Millers to the blended brood in the Daddy’s Home movies, writer-director Sean Anders has mined comic gold out of family dysfunction. But Instant Family, now available from Redbox on DVD, Blu-ray and On Demand, hits closer to home for him. It’s based on his own experiences adopting three foster children.
Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne star as Pete and Ellie, whose lives are overwhelmed when they take in a teenager and her two younger siblings through the foster care system. The sudden addition of three children does not make their house a home. That takes patience, perseverance and trust. This family will be anything but instant.
The supporting cast includes Tig Notaro and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer as close-knit social workers who are hilariously not always on the same page. Margo Martindale is grandmother Sandy (“You’re family now and I’ve got your back forever” she announces) with Julie Haggerty (Airplane!) and Michael O’Keefe (Caddyshack) as Ellie’s more confused parents. And that’s not all: a “national treasure” makes a cameo appearance during a pivotal climactic scene.
Of the good reviews the film has received from critics, Anders cherishes those offered by foster parents and professionals. One called the film, “a gift.” Anders spoke with Redbox about the importance of making a film that presents a complete picture of the foster care process.
Redbox: What was the a-ha moment for you to base a film on your own life and experiences as a foster parent?
Sean Anders: Every day John Morris, my writing partner and I get together to work and we start out talking about what’s going on in our lives. John had been hearing about the foster care process from me. We talked about how so few people really understand how these families are created. We thought that would be an interesting story to tell, but I wondered whether a topic this serious could be framed as a comedy. John said absolutely because so many of the stories I told him were actually funny. In hindsight!
Redbox: How important was it for you not to sugarcoat your experience?
Sean Anders: Very important. So many movies made on this topic are all sugar-coating—The Apple Dumpling Gang kind of stiff where this guy who hates kid gets charmed by three adorable scamps. One of my goals with this movie was to walk that line of keeping the movie funny and entertaining and heartwarming, but not shy away from the honest trauma and tragedy that is involved in many of these stories.
Redbox: How important was audience testing to make sure you were achieving that?
Sean Anders: Again, very important. Watching the movie with an audience for the first time was like being on a cross-country all-turbulence flight. I knew it would be a fail if it felt too saccharine or too dark or preachy. It was such a relief that it played great with them. Then we had another great experience where we showed the movie to social workers, adoptive families and people that work in the field. They were so appreciative of the authenticity; that was one of the best moments of my entire life.
Redbox: This film is something of a departure from your more rowdy comedies. Was there a film—not yours—that you used as inspiration for what you were aiming for?
Sean Anders: The gold standard is John Hughes as far as threading comedy and drama. His are some of my favorite movies. Ron Howard’s Parenthood is the gold standard parenting movie. I think my all-time favorite adoption movie is this fantastic movie called Win-Win.
Redbox: Let’s talk your great cast. Do you have Mark Wahlberg on speed dial?
Sean Anders: I do. I had done (the Daddy’s Home) movies with Mark and I emailed him about this one. I wasn’t sure he would be interested because it was a different tone than what we had done. I wrote him this impassioned email. Mark called me first thing in the morning to say he was in. That got our project off and running.
Redbox: Is there nothing Rose Byrne can’t do?
Sean Anders: I don’t think so. If I found out she was also an astronaut, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
Redbox: You’re a comedy guy; is it a coincidence that you’ve got stars from both Airplane! and Caddyshack?
Sean Anders: No, it wasn’t a coincidence. Those are two of the movies that John and I quote regularly. I don’t want to make it sound like we chose those actors because of their past movies. Julie Haggerty was spot-on perfect for the role of Grandma Jan and it was such an exciting thing to have Michael O’Keefe. It wasn’t a huge role, but he said he wanted to get back into doing comedy.
Redbox: And then at the end of the movie, there’s Joan Cusack!
Sean Anders: She’s a national treasure. It’s an interesting story (how we got her). This character who gets involved during this crucial moment in this family’s development was always in the script. Our casting director suggested Joan and we all flipped out. I made it a top priority to get her; I wrote her an email and said how important this movie is to me and it’s not a huge part but it’s an important part. And she came in. We only had her for one day, but she was fantastic and funny and she played it with this great empathy and sweetness. Audiences go crazy when they see her. I emailed her (afterwards) and said, ‘You were only here for a day, but you have no idea how happy you’ve made so many people.’
Redbox: You’ve got several options here: A sequel, adapting Instant Family for a TV series, a spinoff with Tig Nataro and Octavia Spencer or a Grandma Sandy franchise.
Sean Anders: (Laughs) Those all sound great. Tig and Octavia are fantastic together. They need to be in a buddy cop series. Every time they’re onscreen, they’re just killin’.
Redbox: What’s next for you?
Sean Anders: Whatever is next, it’s not going to be straight comedy. Instant Family was important in allowing us to show that we can do more than screwball comedy, which I love, but John and I will be moving in other directions.
Redbox: I was hoping you could bring back Seth Green’s Ezekiel character from Sex Drive, one of the funniest characters of the last 15 years.
Sean Anders: Thank you for saying that. He was fantastic with us on the set. We were green to the process and he was such a pro. We learned so much from him and he’s hysterically funny in that part. I only wish that movie had been a bigger hit so I could do a whole movie just about his character.