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Director Sean Anders speaks about Instant Family

Sean Anders
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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

The in-demand director opens up about the most talked-about comedy of the year.

One day, Sean Anders made a joke to his wife about adopting some children. Now, he has three beautiful ones, and a hit movie based on their “chaotic, awkward” journey to becoming a family.

For 10 years, Sean Anders has marked himself out as one of the most outrageous and hilarious screenwriters in Hollywood, creating with co-writer John Morris everything from Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) to We’re The Millers (2013), Dumb And Dumber To (2014) and the sequel to Horrible Bosses that same year, which Anders would direct as his fourth feature.

But when the pair was called in to work up a screenplay that would go on to become Daddy’s Home, which Anders would direct – along with its sequel – they came into the orbit of Mark Wahlberg, the first person they then thought of when it came to starring in a piece they’d written based loosely on Anders’ life. That was Instant Family, a screenplay they initially thought of as “something small and Sundancey” but has now become the most talked-about comedy of the year.

A lot of people are saying that Instant Family, with its themes of togetherness and openness, is the perfect movie for our divided world at the moment. Do you agree?

Well, a lot of people who have seen the movie have mentioned that, and I think that in a time when there are  a lot of disagreements out there, the one thing all of us can agree on is that we all care about family and all love our kids. And I think that a movie like this, where you have kids and parents who are essentially choosing to love each other, yeah, I think it is the perfect time for a movie like that.

How did your wife and kids react when they first saw the finished movie?

They loved it. Although, they’d been hearing about every stitch of it for so long that I think it wasn’t so much that they were thinking, ‘Oh, that’s our life up there on the screen’ as much as they were recognising all of these things I’d been talking about for so long. They’ve been great about it. In fact, now my kids are just sick of it! But I was really pleased because I was excited about how much my kids, especially my youngest, enjoyed the movie despite some of the drama and some of the things that were a bit beyond him. He just enjoyed it as a fun movie.

In so much as this is an autobiographical story, you just so happen to have cast Mark Wahlberg as yourself. Presumably it’s nice seeing yourself looking so ripped on screen?

Yeah, I tell everybody that when I started casting the role I started with the abs. [Laughs] No, for me it wasn’t about that at all, obviously. I don’t feel like Mark is playing me or Rose is playing my wife. The story is a fictional tale that is inspired by our story but it’s also inspired by the stories of many other families that we met along the way. The reason I wanted Mark in the movie so badly, and that he completely delivered on, is that the thing he has in all of his performances is this intense sincerity. And that’s what I wanted from the character. And then on top of it, let’s face it, it’s just fun to see an action hero, a tough guy like Mark becoming really emotionally involved, and getting emotional about these kids.

Was it tough working away from home on this movie, given the intimacy of the material?

Oh, yeah. I kind of joke to everybody that it was really painful to have to be in tears in front of Mark Wahlberg for three straight months… Just as a man, you know? It was interesting to be away from my family but be thinking about and talking about my family all day, every day. That made me miss them even more. And John [Morris] and I always joke that we always have to tell our families, ‘Sorry guys, not right now. We’re making a movie about the importance of family. We don’t have time for this.’ [Laughs] But I will say this: I think it’s really good for anybody who is a dad or  a parent to spend some time, if they’ll permit you, to talk to other people about how much you love your kids.”

On paper, your story doesn’t sound like the most obvious material for a comedy. What made you think it was?

I can tell you for one thing that so many genuinely funny things happened along the way [of our experience]. It’s  a terribly awkward, chaotic situation, when you have these people that move into your house, and you don’t know them and they don’t know you, and you’re trying to figure out how to be a family. So, it might not seem on the surface that that’s grounds for a comedy, but it really was. Plus, for me, there have been a load of great dramas that have been made on this topic, but they tend to send people away with those negative feelings, or feelings of pity or whatever. I wanted to tell a story that had more laughs and love and joy in it, so that when people went away from it, they felt better about who these kids are and who these families are.   

How have people with similar stories reacted to the movie?

We had a great opportunity to show the movie at the NACAC conference, which is a conference for people who work in the field of foster care and adoption. But there were also a lot of adoptive families there. And it was really scary because it was the first time we were showing it to that kind of an audience. And they came in, they were very kind, but they were also sceptical. And their reaction to the movie was so overwhelming. And we’ve done several more of those kinds of screenings and it’s been the same way every time.  I was trying to describe to the cast the outpouring of love and gratitude we’ve gotten from that community. I said, ‘It’s as though they’ve been fighting in a fox hole for years and they feel like with this movie reinforcements are finally coming.’ They are very excited, and that’s been wonderful.

All the actors are saying how open you were to improvisation of the script. Was that difficult, given how personal the material is?

Not really. The thing that’s important to me isn’t so much the words – although sometimes it’s the words – but the feelings and the emotions and the moments. They are what are important to me. And all of the people we had involved in the movie understood that. When you give people freedom, at least the people who like to do that, you can find these extra bits that you could never have come up with on your own, and you can bring some more textures to the whole thing. And, it gives you more laughs because when you have really smart and funny people like Mark and Rose and Octavia [Spencer] and Tig Notaro, if you let them do their thing, they’re always going to bring you pearls.

How did you build that dynamic between everyone, on screen and on set – especially between the three kids?

I really like working with kids. And a big part of finding the right kids for me is that I’m auditioning the parents right along with them. Because kids who have good, grounded parents… First of all, a movie set is not always a great place for kids. There are a lot of adults around them all day long, telling them how cute and wonderful they are. And it’s a distorted version of reality, and they really need their parents to keep them grounded. When you find the good parents, you get the better performances out of the kids, because they’re grounded. You don’t have these little tormented actors! You have real kids. And immediately these kids felt like siblings. They’d have fun together, they’d sometimes bicker, like brothers and sisters do. They just did the work for us.

As funny as it is, this movie also has important things to say. In an ideal world, what would you like it to achieve?

The main thing I wanted to achieve was to change people’s attitudes to kids in foster care and adoptive families. There’s a scene in the movie, at Thanksgiving, where the family members say some of the things they’re thinking about Pete and Ellie’s decision. And those are the attitudes that unfortunately a lot of people have. There are unfortunately dark attitudes to who these kids are, where they come from, and what they could bring into your life. And yet all of the families I’ve met who have gone on the same journey that we have gone on, they love their kids like crazy and have these amazing, wonderful families. Not without hardship, but I don’t know any biological families who aren’t without hardship either. That’s what I want. I want people to come see the movie, to laugh, have a good time and to leave just having a different attitude about what these things mean.

Instant Family (12A) is out in UK cinemas on Thursday 14th February.