Director Sean Anders has made a name for himself as a writer and director of comedies like Sex Drive, Horrible Bosses 2, and the Daddy’s Home series. His latest film, Instant Family, hits theaters on November 16, and marks his third collaboration with star Mark Wahlberg.
The film is loosely based on his own life, and follows Wahlberg and Rose Byrne as a married couple who decide to grow their family through adoption, leading to a lovely mix of comedy, drama, and heartwarming antics. Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Tom Segura, Margo Martindale, and Julie Hagerty all contribute to the film’s all-star ensemble cast.
Related: Watch The Instant Family Trailer
Instant Family isn’t just a riotous comedy with a sentimental flavor, but an autobiographical passion project from a seasoned director relaying the story he was born to tell. At a press junket for the film, we sat down with Anders to discuss the film, assembling its large roster of supporting players, and his unique approach to working with child actors. Anders also shared the secret behind keeping a jolly atmosphere on set, as well as the real life anecdotes from the adoption process which found their way into the film (hint: he totally hit his son in the face with a soccer ball). Finally, he shares the story of how he and his writing partner were enlisted to write the first draft for 2014’s Dumb and Dumber To.
When did the idea for Instant Family first enter your mind?
I don’t remember exactly when, but it was my writing partner, John Morris, I think he was the one who suggested it first. The reason why is because, when I got involved in adoption, and I went to the orientation, and I went to the classes, and support group and all that stuff, I was unfamiliar with every step of that process. I had never seen it depicted in anything. And when I would tell people about how it all worked, everybody had the same reaction: nobody knew anything about it. I just felt that people need to understand this whole system better. And then, when we started talking about whether we should make it a comedy. That’s what we do, we do comedies. And John said, right away, “Almost every story you’ve told me about your family and your situation was pretty funny, sometimes darkly funny.” But we thought, yeah, what a great opportunity to tell this story through comedy. I got really excited about it because I thought, all of the movies I’ve seen on this topic, they mostly focus on the trauma and the tragedy, and there have been some great movies, but unfortunately, they leave people with these feelings of fear and pity and that kind of thing, and my own experience wasn’t like that. It was born out of tragedy, as every adoption story is, but there were so many laughs, and so much love, so much joy, that I wanted to tell a more complete story of a family that is built from those tumultuous beginnings but comes together as a real loving family.
How did you get Mark Wahlberg to sign on to Instant Family, your third collaboration together?
I wrote Mark an E-mail, a very impassioned E-mail, about how important this movie was to me, and about how much I really wanted him to do it. I didn’t know what his reaction would be. I rewrote it, like, ten times, and I sent it to him, and he called me the very next morning, and he said “yes.” He said, “ya know, I get up really early and I got your E-mail, and I’ve been waiting for a reasonable hour to call you back.” And what meant the world to me was that he didn’t say, “Yeah, let me talk to my agent, let me check my schedule.” Movie stars don’t just call you and say “yes.” That just doesn’t happen. Mark really cared about the topic. He had met a lot of kids in care over the years, so he said yes right away. The first time I worked with him in Daddy’s Home, I realized that he played such a warm heart so well, even when he was playing this kind of tough, aloof guy. A lot of people have said to me that they find Mark surprising in this movie because he’s the warmest they’ve ever seen him. He’s so adorable in the movie, you just love him, you know?
Something I really like about this movie is that it is not afraid to go to the extreme in either direction. It’s hilarious, but also so dramatic or heartwarming. Sometimes at the same time! Maybe my favorite scene in the movie is when little Lita is playing “Restaurants” with Rose Byrne, and she’s saying these racist things that, the movie never says, but she clearly heard from her foster parents.
There’s an element of tragedy in what’s happening right there, but it’s so silly and crazy.
I get Norman Lear vibes of saying a dark and serious thing, but also laughing at every step along that journey. Can you tell me a bit about balance and playing with those dynamics of comedy and drama together?
Norman Lear is a great reference for that. That was the number one priority. We tried to hone that balance of comedy and drama, of lightheartedness and seriousness, from the very first draft all the way to the final edit. We were still tweaking that until the very last day, because we knew it was a fine line we had to walk. I didn’t know for sure whether we had pulled it off until we screened it the first time. I was absolutely terrified. I thought, if people come into this and they feel like we’re making fun of these kids or foster care, I’m gonna feel horrible. But at the same time, if they come into it and they feel like the movie is overly tragic or sad or anything like that, I’m gonna realize I didn’t do my job right. And from that very first screening, people reacted in such a wonderful and overwhelming way. It was an amazing moment for me.
That’s great. It must be great to see something you’ve worked on for so long to come together and be what you wanted it to be!
And then we had another experience that was, I would say, maybe the best moment of my career, which was when we took the movie up to the NACAC conference up in St Paul. It was a packed theater full of social workers, people who work in the field, adoptive families, and people who grew up in foster care. It was the people the movie was made about. They were very kind, but they came in with a palpable sense of skepticism, because they feel like, when Hollywood movies are made on this topic, they always take so much license; they’ll have hints of reality in them, but it’s usually just a way to tell a different story. Again, I was terrified to show it to that audience because, if they didn’t like it, I would have felt like such a failure, but I could tell, within about ten minutes, that they were really on board. And at the end of the movie, they gave us a standing ovation, and they embraced the movie even harder than I ever could have dreamed of. I’m not gonna lie to you, I cried. That was just such an amazing moment for me.
Let’s talk about casting! The supporting cast in this is just amazing.
Thank you, I agree!
Tell me about getting to work with the beautiful and hilarious Julie Hagerty.
She was in the movie that started me down the comedy path. When I was a little kid, my dad took me, on my birthday, to see Airplane!, and I was literally, and I mean literally, on the floor laughing, and that was the moment I became enamored with comedy, and so, to do a movie with Julie Hagerty was a treat. I got to really geek out on that one.
Did you get to carve out time and just ask her stuff about Airplane?
Yes, I did ask her very early on, “is it okay if I just ask you some questions about some of my favorite movies, like What About Bob?” She was fantastic. She really is that person you want her to be in real life. We had to fight for a lot of our cast. Julie is a perfect example. She was finishing up a project and her dates weren’t working with our dates, and, much to the chagrin of my First Assistant Director, we shuffled around our schedule and we really just bent over backwards to make that work, schedule-wise, to get her into the movie. And we got other amazing people like Margo Martindale, and, of course, Octavia Spencer, who I never thought in a million years that we could get her because she’s in such high demand, but she read the script and she loved it and she wanted to do it, and then we had to find, now we’ve got this incredible get for Karen, and who’s gonna be Sharon? And then we thought of Tig Notaro, of whom I had been a fan for years. When we got Octavia, the thought of pairing her with Tig was so exciting. I didn’t think we’d get lucky enough to get them both, but we did!
Octavia and Tig are such a perfect pair. They could have their own movie.
I want to write a buddy cop movie for them, where Tig is just killing people left and right.
That’s my exclusive! It could be your next movie. Will Mark be the serial killer they’re trying to nail?
No, he’ll be the gruff lieutenant!
I’d watch that!
Let me tell you something about Tig. This is your exclusive! When we sat down with Tig, she said, “I really like the names Karen and Sharon, like you’re doing a riff on Caring and Sharing.” And I was like, “Oh. We are? We are! Yeah!” We liked that their names rhymed, just because they were such salt and pepper shakers in the movie, they’re always together, but it never occurred to me that it was “caring and sharing,” and she thought I was being so clever, and I couldn’t take any credit for it.
I think the kids you cast can either make or break a movie like this. And you got some amazing kids. How difficult is it to cast and direct little kids?
I really like working with kids. I feel like it’s something that I’m good at. The main thing is I audition their parents as much as I audition the kids. I need to make sure that whatever kids come into our movies have good, decent, grounded parents who are gonna make sure those kids are still having a childhood while they’re on set. And then, when we work with the kids in the movie, we really do our best to try and make it fun for them. Sometimes, for a little kid like Julianna (Gamiz), who played Lita, we would make shooting certain things almost like a game. We would come up with little games we could play. I think that’s how you get the kids to be real. We don’t want them in there, overly trained, just hitting their mark, giving a cute smile and delivering a perfect line. They wind up looking fake. We want them to be playing and acting like kids. The thing I was so proud of was, whenever we would bring the kids to set, the crew would just light up. It’s because we picked really good kids that were good little people and good little actors, and they never held us up. They were always just really bright and sunny to be around.
You’ve talked about the movie being loosely based on your own life. So I guess that’s your way of saying, “No, I did not pelt my children with baseballs and basketballs.”
Oh, no, I did.
The very first time that we went and met and played with our kids… It wasn’t a basketball. I believe it was a soccer ball I was playing with my son, and we were kicking the ball back and forth, and I just drilled him right in the face accidentally. And that’s the thing, is that you’re there and you’re just trying to play and be a good guy and meet the kids, and then, of course, I’m there for, like, fifteen minutes and I’ve already hurt him! That was very real.
So, there are a lot of personal anecdotes in this film. Can you share any others?
The entire setup of the movie, the way that Mark makes that joke about, “I feel like I’m gonna be an old dad, so why don’t we just adopt a five year old? It’ll be like we got started five years ago!” And he’s totally kidding, that’s exactly how my family started. I made this joke, it was just an off-hand remark, and I didn’t mean it. But my wife thought it was interesting enough to talk about. I tried to convince her that it was just a joke, but we ended up looking at a website, which was compelling enough to get us into an orientation. So that was all very real. There’s a moment where Mark and Rose are sitting on the bed and they’re at their must frustrated and lost and scared, and they talk about, “there’s gotta be some way out of this, there’s gotta be some way back to the happy, quiet, clean life that we used to have.” And my wife and I actually had that conversation. That was also very gratifying; when I’ve shown the movie – which I’ve done many times now – to audiences filled with adoptive families, they love that scene, because they all had that conversation, too, they’ve been there, but they persevered through it. . So those moments are sprinkled throughout the movie.
We’ve discussed Tig Notaro, but can you tell me about the other stand-up comedians in the movie, Tom Segura and Iliza Shlesinger?
On Daddy’s Home 2, that movie was oddly physically demanding, so on the weekends, I would just lay around and watch Netflix all weekend. So I found him randomly on Netflix, and I wound up watching all of his specials that were up, so I kind of had him in mind. And at that point, we had already written a couple of drafts of the script, so I thought, ya know, he might be a really good Russ… But I hadn’t seen him in anything, and I didn’t know if he was even an actor. It’s kind of a funny story. We called him in, and apparently, Tom had been auditioning for things for years, but just never gets booked!
Aww, poor thing!
So when his agent called him, he said, “hey we need you to go in for this movie,” Tom was like, “No, I’m busy,” and he wasn’t gonna go because he thought, there’s no point! But then his agent called him back and said, “No, the director is asking for you, specifically.” Tom thought he was lying to him, just to get him to go to the audition, but it turned out to be true because I was a fan and really wanted him for the part.
What about Iliza?
In the case of Iliza Shlesinger, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know who she was. We were reading a bunch of people for the role of October. Everybody who came in would read the character a little too nutty, and I would give them the note, “Try reading it like you’re the CEO of a big company.” And then Iliza came in and she was exactly what I had in mind for the character. She played it very buttoned-down, and very tough. Right away, we were like, “Wow, she’s hilarious.” So we cast her, and then my manager called and was like, “You have that great stand-up, Iliza Shlesinger, in the movie!” And I didn’t realize, so I went to Netflix and I watched all her specials.
Last question, I want to ask you about a movie that you worked on a few years ago, Dumb and Dumber To. I think we can all say that was a sequel that we never thought would actually be made because of how many years had passed since the original. Can you tell a little bit about being brought onboard for that?
Well, John and I were big Farrelly Bros. fans, even before we ever made it to Hollywood. We learned how to run a happy movie set from listening to their commentary tracks, because they would talk about how important it was to them to create a good vibe on set, and how that good vibe finds its way onto the screen and people can feel it. That was a priority for us. On all our sets, we really go out of our way to try to make it a happy place for everyone to work. And on this movie, we had the happiest set we’ve ever created. We’ve had so many people, people who’ve been in the business for twenty or thirty years, say they’ve never ever experienced anything like it. They would ask me, “How did you guys figure out how to do this?” And I would say, Pete Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly on their commentary tracks. So I E-mailed Pete after we finished this movie and said, “Hey, I just want to give you credit for inadvertently teaching me this, because it really paid off on Instant Family.” We got to know those guys a little bit. We were working on a project… We were going to make a movie of Walter the Farting Dog, which is a children’s book. We had a great time working on that script, but it unfortunately didn’t come to fruition. Around that time, they were doing Dumb and Dumber To, and they asked us if we would be interested in writing, essentially, the first draft. Then they would come in and rewrite. It was a huge honor for us because we’re huge fans of theirs and of the first movie. We went over to Jim Carrey’s house and we pitched him some of our ideas, and he sort of liked the ideas and started jumping into his Lloyd character and ran lines that we had just pitched him. It was a movie geek’s dream come true! At the end of that meeting, Jim kind of just leaned back in his chair and said, “I like this. I like this idea. Let’s do this.” So we went off and we wrote one draft, and we turned it in, and it was really a fun thing to write. And that was the end of our experience with it. We turned it in and Pete and Bobby took it from there. Some of the stuff we wrote stayed, and a lot of things went. Seeing the movie, it was really amazing to see those guys doing some of our dialogue that we had written, and some of the scenes that we had written. It was a pretty different movie from the draft that we had written, but that whole experience was kind of a dream come true for us.