Sean Anders talks about Instant Family and Adoption
Sean Anders co-wrote and directed the new film, Instant Family. The film was inspired by Anders own experience with adoption as Sean and his wife Beth adopted two children. While I have not adopted a child myself, I grew up in New Jersey and my mom took in several foster children throughout my childhood. I was excited to talk to Sean and share my story with him while I learned more about his story and the many inspirations behind creating this film.
Scott Menzel: Hey, Sean. How are you?
Sean Anders: I’m great. How are you doing?
Scott Menzel: Great. Man, I want to tell you that it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a movie like this, where I was this deeply impacted and moved by it, so congratulations.
Sean Anders: Wow. Thank you so much.
Scott Menzel: This story is very near and dear to my heart as well as it is to you, I’m sure. I come from a family where I grew up with foster kids throughout my life, and I have six adopted brothers. Seeing this play out on the big screen was a very emotional and nostalgic feeling in a way that I never expected.
Sean Anders: Wow. Wow. That’s amazing. How are they doing, if you don’t mind me asking?
Scott Menzel: No, no problem. Everyone’s doing good. All of them are very different. Very much like how this film is. I have four black brothers. They’re all doing different things. My one brother has two kids already. Another one of my brothers, he’s was in the military and is now in college. Another one is just working, and the other one is just doing his thing.
Sean Anders: That’s amazing, man. I mean, look, I don’t know your story, and I don’t know your family, but I mean, those are great success stories, and so many of the kids, as you know, if they don’t find somebody to love and guide them, they wind up in horrible places. Any time they’re just moving forward with their lives, and they’re working it out, that’s a huge success.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I agree. I mean, it can be a challenging and trying experience. It’s funny, because when I watched your movie, I didn’t expect it to sneak up on me as much as it did, and it really wasn’t until the ending of the film where I remember the Paramount rep was outside the screening room door, and during the entire credits, I was just bawling my eyes out. Then we walked out the door, and the lady asked me what I thought, and I just started crying again. I was like “it’s so good!” and my wife was telling the rep about how I related to the film. My wife does not come from the same kind of family background as I do, but she looked at me during it, and she was just like, “I couldn’t lock eyes with you, because I knew you were just going to break down.”
Sean Anders: Oh, man. That’s incredible to hear. I mean, it’s personal to you, but we are trying to make an emotional connection with people with the movie, so the fact that you had that kind of connection, and that kind of outpouring means a lot to me.
Scott Menzel: I’m telling you, it’s a long time since I’ve had that kind of reaction. Enough about me. I’m trying to find the words to describe this film. Authentic, funny, heartwarming, emotional, completely satisfying are all things that come to mind. Since this was so personal to you as well, how did that differ compared to all the other projects you were a part of?
Sean Anders: Well, I mean, it’s a big difference, because every movie I do, even the screwballiest of the screwball comedies, I always try to find some way into it that I relate to, or something that matters to me about the story, so that I can lock into the characters and care about them and what’s happening, but this is a whole different level of that, because it starts with my own story, but it also incorporated the stories of many other people that I’ve met. In doing it, it’s brought me in contact with some really amazing people and families and their stories. It’s a whole different level than what I’m used to.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. I can only imagine even going into the casting and bringing people like Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne in. It must be a different experience directing them with something that’s fictionalized where you can make it up as opposed to someone who’s supposed to be playing yourself, or your wife and stuff like that. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to work to work with the actors in order to make them understand what you went through?
Sean Anders: Yeah. Well, I’ve known Mark from doing the last few Daddy’s Home movies, and he’s heard some things about my family, and the way my family was created. Then, when Rose got involved, the first thing she asked to do was to sit down with my wife, Beth and just spend some time with her. Then, she got to go out and have a meal with a bunch of other adoptive moms. They threw themselves into the world of it right away. That made a big difference. Then, as far as them specifically playing my wife or me, the movie is a fictional story that is inspired by my story, but as I said, inspired by a lot of people’s stories. It wasn’t so much about playing us as it was just trying to understand what you go through as an adoptive parent.
With Rose being a relatively new mom, and with Mark being right in it with all of his kids, they had their own real experience to draw from, and they were able to meet a lot of other people, including many on set. There were several times throughout the movie, when you see people in the background, families, and kids, more often than not, you’re seeing real adoptive families in the background because it was necessary to us to bring those real families in and have them with us on set. We learned a lot from them as well.
Scott Menzel: Oh, that’s great. I was reading a little bit about that in the notes, that you had a couple of people, and that you drew from a few people for inspiration as well. That was great. Going a little bit more into depth, because it’s so relatable to me, as it is to you, I’m curious how many foster children did you wind up having in your home before you felt like you found the perfect match?
Sean Anders: Well, my wife and I, our intention was always to foster to adopt, and we were fortunate in the sense that the first kids that came into our home, we fostered them for about a year before we adopted them. They were the only kids we’ve ever fostered in our home, and those are my kids that I adopted.
Scott Menzel: Interesting because our life story was very different than that. My mom was very passionate about kids, and we’ve actually had so many different kids living with us throughout my life, and it wasn’t until we had all my brothers that we’d adopted every single one of them. They were drug babies and babies who were just abandoned, and we had them since we were a few weeks old. But, before them, we had a lot of teenagers, and it’s interesting because you pinpoint a lot of good stuff about with teenagers, how no one wanted to adopt them. We had many different teenagers in our house, but they were often difficult because they would run away, or would be verbally abusive and things of that nature. We did have a few good ones too. However, I’m so glad that you showed that in your film too, and I think that was very realistic showing how they behave.
Sean Anders: Yeah. Thank you. That’s part of what we wanted to show is that it’s not easy on either side of it. It’s not easy for a teenager that is nearly an adult to suddenly be in a new home where people want to tell them what to do and want to parent them. It’s certainly not easy for parents to take in a teenager and to try to guide them and parent them. But, I think, if both sides can see what can come out of that relationship, and they can find a way to come together, and I’ve heard many stories where they have great stories. Not only does the teenager get such a better shot at life on every level, but it brings so much joy and love and satisfaction to the parents as well.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. It’s a pretty remarkable thing. I’m so happy that you did it. I feel like this film has the potential of opening that up so more people can see the joys of adoption, and the big changes that they can make. Once again, I really do appreciate you taking the time to showcase that. More fun questions than in terms of the actual film. The couples that were in the adoption process with you guys were they all real, or were some of those made up?
Sean Anders: They were all inspired by real people that I met along the way. More than anything, I was just trying to portray all the different archetypes of people that you meet in the system. I mean, so many same-sex couples, for example, are drawn to foster care adoption as well as people who find it through their church, and there are single parents who come into it. You get into it with this real melting pot of all kinds of different people who come from all kinds of walks of life, but what happens in the movie and what happened in our story is that throughout the classes, and then later, the support groups, you’re all in it together, and you’re all dealing with the same issues, so you really pull together and help each other out.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. I think, by putting in Octavia and Tig in this film, as the group leaders, I thought it was very interesting because they do seem like an odd pairing on the surface. The two of them seem very different. Even their type of humor is different. But yet, they were both comedic, but also the voices of reason during several moments in the film. Again, is that just you building upon your experience as well as others to use the counselors in that way?
Sean Anders: Yeah. Social workers are sort of your guides through this process when you get involved in it in real life. They were a natural fit to be the sane characters in this story, the ones who can guide Pete and Ellie, but they certainly can’t do it for them, and they certainly can’t make anything work on their own. They can really only give them advice and root for them. Then, Octavia and Tig, my real social workers were just a really funny odd couple, so we wanted to recreate a version of that. It’s very different than the social workers that I had, but putting Octavia and Tig together, because like you said, they have such different sensibilities, both dramatically and comedically, that they’re so funny together. I can’t even tell you how many people have come up to me and said they just wanted more and more and more of Octavia and Tig.
Scott Menzel: When I watched them for the first few minutes in the movie, I was like, “Oh, I don’t know how I feel about that,” because it’s just like their personalities are so wildly different, but as it went on, you really do love them. You want more and more, and it’s funny, because the family dynamic, of course, lights up the screen. It’s something that is the reason why you’re watching this movie. That’s the reason why it works so well, but it’s amazing how much these two characters add, and they become the guiding force of this film in a lot of ways.
Sean Anders: I’ll tell you the truth about that, that when, in our first couple drafts, the social workers were a little too similar in their demeanors to the point of where we felt like, “Well, maybe we only need one social worker.” But, I liked the dynamic of the two social workers being able to play off of them, so I went back to the reality, which was my social workers were very different from one another. We adjusted the characters further, and then when Octavia and Tig were cast in the roles, and we knew who we were writing for, we were able to hone that a little bit sharper, and particularly, Tig had such a really specific way of speaking and a specific type of delivery that her, next to Octavia, and with Octavia playing the louder of the two characters, we wound up with a dynamic that turned out to be magic.
Scott Menzel: It is complete magic. I loved it. Can you share the story of how you came up with the character of Lizzy because I know that that’s not part of your story also how did you find Isabela Moner?
Sean Anders: Yeah. Okay. No, it’s a great story. My wife and I went to an adoption fair, just like the characters do in the movie. I met a teenage girl there. We also met her two siblings, her brother, and sister. We did not go there with the intention of adopting a teenager or taking in a teenager, but they seemed like great kids, and we were very taken with them, just like Pete and Ellie are in the story, and we wound up matching with them, and we thought we were going to get a teenager in our house. I’m not going to lie to you. We were very scared about that, but we jumped into it, and we were getting ourselves prepared for it. A couple of weeks later, the social worker called and said it’s not going to work out, because the 16-year-old girl, the kids had been in care for about four years, and she was understandably very close with her birth mom or felt a close connection with her birth mom, and she felt that her birth mom was coming back.
She didn’t want to accept the placement. That was the genesis of the Lizzy character that this young lady that we met at one of those fairs, and that she had been in care that long, and that she did have a deep connection with her birth mother, even though her birth mother hadn’t contacted her in a long time. That’s where it started. Then, we found Isabela, Mark knew her previously, had been in The Transformers movie, and I was not … Honestly, I was not excited about that at first, because I felt like, “Well, we’ve already seen that pairing, so I don’t know if I want to do that again,” but then Isabela read some of the scenes, and she had us all completely in tears by the time she was done. The second she was done reading the scenes, we went after her hard and knew that we desperately wanted her in the movie.
Scott Menzel: Were there any scenes that didn’t make it into the film? I know that there’s a lot of things that go on in the adoption process. I love the fact that you showcase the moms coming back and wanting to take the kids back, and having to go through the courtroom scenes and fight against that. Were there any scenes that didn’t make it into the film?
Sean Anders: Nothing specific that I can give you off the top of my head, but I can say that between my own story and the stories of the many families that we met with, it was really hard in that first draft to boil it all down into one story, because there were so many great, compelling stories. Many times, John and I would try to jam in something from somebody’s story, because it was so good, and it was so important, but at the end of the day, you have to tell a clear story. We had to let go of some things that made it overly complicated. But yeah, there were so many times where we were heartbroken to have to cut out an idea or a moment because every family we met with had incredible stories.
Scott Menzel: Okay. Well, thank you very much. Again, it was really nice talking to you. Thank you again for making this movie. It was incredible, and I hope more people react to the film just like I did.
Sean Anders: Yeah. Thank you for sharing your reaction with me. That means a lot to me. I really appreciate it.
Scott Menzel: No problem. Hope you have a wonderful day.
Sean Anders: You too. Have a good one.