It’s moments like this interview with writer and director Sean Anders, that really make this world feel small. Almost ten years to the day one of my favorite comedies Sex Drive, directed by Anders, debuted. To this day my friend and I quote this ridiculous (said with love) film. The same goes for Hot Tub Time Machine. These are films that had an influence on my youth and now I’m writing this telling you about how I somehow found myself in a small meeting room talking to the man himself, Mr. Sean Anders. If you had told me as I was walking out after Sex Drive that I would be able to pick the director’s mind for thirty minutes I’d call you a damn liar; then I’d ask where you want to get lunch.
I was asked to do this interview and I thought it would immediately be followed by a brain aneurysm. “I’ve never done this before.” I thought. I didn’t have a lot of confidence that my first interview would be anything but a giant disaster. I tend to overworry to the point of it being silly but at this point it’s all I know so I might as well just roll with it. Usually, this interview being no exception, my worries are far worse than anything that could ever actually happen. What actually happened was far less frightening than me dying in the middle of it all. It ended up being a pleasant discussion about several things pertaining to the subject of becoming a foster parent and how this idea carried into his newest film, Instant Family.
We shook hands, introduced ourselves and started the word exchange. In a short time we discussed everything from advice for people considering becoming foster parents, the highs and lows of actually going through with it. He discussed the process of his own experience of becoming a foster parent and eventually deciding to adopt. He spoke of the transition of real life to screenplay; what to include and what to leave out. I asked him a personal question from an aspiring filmmaker to an established screenwriter and director about the less obvious things to pay attention to when trying to enter this bizarre world of cinema.
Before I bring you into the conversation I just want to add one last thing: To Sean, if you ever read this I just want to say thank you for making my first ever interview an enjoyable, painless experience that while the time spent was short, it was a transformative discussion for me moving forward.
Anyway, on with the show…
For this interview I will play the part of Nerdlocker (NL) and Sean Anders will play himself (SA):
NL: Did you always want to be a writer/director?
SA: No. I was always really obsessed with movies when I was younger but where I came from that didn’t seem like a possibility. Then some friends of mine and I just got together to make a movie with a crappy home video camera. We edited it on a laptop. This was a long time ago when that technology was pretty new. It was always something I wanted to do after listening to commentary tracks on DVDs. We did it purely for fun and never could have imagined being here talking to you right now.
NL: Do you prefer one over the other, writing or directing?
SA: I like them both for equally different reasons. Writing you can hide from the world and do your work over and over before you have to bring it out. Directing is more trial by fire. You have to get through what you’re doing on any given day. They’re really different disciplines but I like both for different reasons. And they can be a complete nightmare for different reasons too.
NL: Do you find it easier to find your voice when you’re writing as opposed to directing? Would you say it’s more personal?
SA: Yeah because when you’re writing, I write with a writing partner, John Morris, we consider ourselves blue collar writers. We know we’re not geniuses so we just punch in, put the time in and spend hours every day just talking and writing and rethinking and rewriting. So yeah it’s real personal in that regard. With this movie in particular even more so.
NL: This is a bit of a personal question but as someone who would like to eventually one day make movies, do you have any less than obvious tips for someone not yet in that business?
SA: What I tell everybody is just make your movie. It’s so much easier now to make a movie. The camera on your phone looks better than the camera I had when I first started. So I guess that’s the more obvious one. The less obvious one is what John and I did when we got going was just spending all of our time breaking down existing movies; good one and bad ones. Virtually every day we would spend a couple of hours watching a movie, stopping and starting it, outlining it, and going beat for beat through the movie.
NL: You looked for what worked and what didn’t.
SA: Yeah but more specifically what the blueprint was of the movie. It was like tearing a house apart and then doing the plans afterward. By deconstructing movies we became students of finished films. I think that was really helpful.
NL: So you’ve worked with Mark Wahlberg in a few films now, is there something specific about him that you find relatable to the characters you’re writing?
SA: Mark, as a giant movie star, he never loses that regular guy quality. That was important for this movie because a huge theme of this movie is that we’re not special. It’s the idea that we’re not the “special, charitable” couple that does something like this, we’re just regular people. That accounts for a lot of the fear you have going into this (foster program). You don’t know if you’re qualified to do this. So Mark having that quality was helpful I think.
NL: In your real-life experience of becoming foster parents, was it as sudden a decision for you and your wife to become foster parents as it was in the film?
SA: It was. First it was years of discussing whether or not we were going to have kids. Then just like the characters in the movie we felt like for a long time we couldn’t afford it. Then we were doing better at the time we discussed becoming foster parents and that discussion went very much like it did in the movie. I made a joke and said, “Why don’t we adopt a five year-old and it’ll be like we got started five years ago.” I was totally kidding but my wife took that in and thought about it. We then ended up looking at a website and it was a day later after that conversation that we were talking seriously about it and pretty soon we were in an orientation.
NL: Was it always going to be a comedy? Was there ever a more dramatic version of the story?
SA: Yeah it was always going to be a comedy. When John and I were first discussing it, it seemed impossible to do it as a comedy. It was John though who has more perspective being on the outside of it who asked, “Well why can’t it be a comedy? You’re constantly telling me funny stories about what’s happened along the way.” We knew from the beginning that it was going to be a dramatic comedy, a comedy that would take its subject matter seriously. I really wanted to make a movie about this topic that could capture the joy and happiness of it. There have been fantastic movies about this topic but unfortunately they tend to reinforce this thing that frightens people from fostering or adopting. The reality is every single family that I met with during our research are very happy that they did it.
NL: Is there a funny story that you just had to share when writing this movie? Something that had to be included?
SA: When Mark’s character Pete hears the opening speech at the orientation he gets very excited about adopting. Then Rose’s character Ellie who had the idea first is now worried now that he’s excited. That happened with my wife and I. At first I was like “ I don’t know about this.” and then after going through the website and doing some learning I went back to her excited. I told her maybe we can do this. She was just like, “Uh oh.”
NL: As a big fan of stand-up comedy, what was it like working with Tom Segura?
SA: It was great. I’m also a big fan of stand-up and I had seen Tom when we were shooting Daddy’s Home 2 just on the weekends recuperating and ended up watching all of his Netflix specials. I sort of found him randomly. It was funny because Tom has told me since that when he got the call about coming in to read for the movie he was busy and that he goes to these reads and nobody ever hires him so he was like, “Eh.” But then he got another call from his agent saying no, the director is asking for him specifically. He thought his agent was lying just to get him off his ass and into the audition. It turned out that I was a fan and really wanted him in the movie.
NL: Was it a conscious decision to hire as many stand-up comedians as you did?
SA: No (laughing). Tom was the only one we went after specifically after seeing his stand-up. Iliza Shlesinger who plays October, she just came in to read for the movie and she was really fantastic. The part was written a little unhinged and a little nutty and people would come in and we would always give them the same note to play it more like a CEO of a company. Then Iliza came in and we didn’t have to give her that note. She walked in and played it that way. It was after we cast her that I found out she’s this big stand-up from Netflix which was a bonus. We picked her just because she crushed it. And Tig Notaro I’ve been a big fan of for a long time. When we got Octavia (Spencer) in the movie that was a huge score for us. After that we were trying to pair Octavia up with someone and nothing seemed right. Then one day I just thought of Tig and her being so dry and those two being our odd couple social workers just sounded great (laughing). Then as luck would have it we contacted Tig’s people and she was available and it all came together.
NL: What did your children think of sharing this story being based off of you and them? Any trepidation?
SA: No. I don’t think they really had their heads wrapped around it too much at the beginning. I think they were excited about how excited I was. So much of it is cryptic to them, the process of filmmaking, but when they were able to come to set and meet the other kids I think it really dawned on them that this is really kind of about our life. I think my kids were really excited to be around it.
NL: How old are your children?
SA: Now, my son Johnny is 13, my daughter is 9, and our youngest son just turned 8.
NL: Have they seen the movie?
SA: Yeah, like nine times!
NL: Do they still feel the same about the film having seen it?
SA: They love the movie. One of the things I was happy with is that my younger kids really enjoyed it just as a movie. They loved watching the little kids doing crazy things. They’ve come to enough events for the movie though and now they’re getting to the point where they’re a little bored of it at this point. It’s because they’ve had to see it about nine times in the course of three weeks.(laughing)
NL: This is your third family type film, is that a direction you’re going to keep on towards?
SA: There’s that old thing of write what you know. Since I’ve had kids I’ve been incorporating family into my ideas. Right now we’re working on what’s next and not all the ideas are family centric but John (Morris) and I can’t help ourselves, we find the family themes in everything we work on. So short answer is yes.
NL: Being that this story is about you, was the process any more difficult than a normal film?
SA: Yes. When you do a more screwball comedy the hard part is all in the comedy. It’s all in landing the laughs. The hard part of this was trying to thread the needle between the comedy and the drama. It’s a sensitive topic and you don’t want to lose the sincerity. You don’t ever want people to think that you’re having a laugh at the expense of the kids or the system or anything that is tragic about it. Working things out where we wanted to place a laugh after an emotional moment required a lot of thought and energy. And then on top of it all of the research that had to be done in terms of working with social workers, working with adoptive families, working with a consultant, there were more facets to it than some things I’ve done in the past.
NL: For anyone who is actually thinking about fostering, who have doubts about themselves who then see your movie and think maybe they can do it, do you have any advice for them?
SA: It’s not all going to be easy and fun. What I wanted to show with the movie that is true and real is that the system has a tendency to overwarn people. I think the agencies and people that work in this field in general could be better about explaining all the wonderful parts that are coming their way. And they definitely tell you about that but I think they’re kind of afraid to oversell that part. But like I’ve said I have met a lot of families in this process that all have happy endings in the sense that they’re glad they did it and they love their kids more than anything, even the ones with the toughest stories to tell. It’s changed their lives in such wonderful ways. If you came to breakfast at my home it could not be a more normal, regular family. We have issues sure but so does everybody else. Whether you have biological kids or adopted kids, you’re going to have hard times and wonderful times. Nobody should shy away from these kids who desperately need parents and homes and love simply because they might be afraid of the process. There’s a stigma about foster care and people can have negative attitudes about it. That’s why I wanted the movie to be joyous and to be a comedy so people could see it and get a more complete picture of fostering and adopting.
NL: I really loved the little boy Juan, played by Gustavo Quiroz. He’s very accident prone and it was hilarious to watch his performance.
SA: Gustavo is actually an interesting story because the part always had the character being accident prone, which is based on my own son who was the same way when we first adopted him, but he was more happy-go-lucky and wild. When Gustavo came in though he was so mellow and sweet and had such a good heart that we ended up rewriting the role a bit for Gustavo because we liked him so much when he came in to read.
NL: Is there anything that happened to you in real life that you wish you could have put in the film but didn’t or couldn’t?
SA: There’s so many things. That was one of the hardest things about writing it. So many things happened over the years up to that point that it took a really long time to narrow it down into a story. I also didn’t want it to just be my story. I wanted to incorporate other families’ stories in there as well to cover as many areas that people actually experience. There were also great stories from other people that didn’t make it.
NL: Going back to Iliza Shlesinger’s part, was that character based on anyone?
SA: Very loosely. The Blind Side thing was a creation but it was based on a woman who was at my foster orientation who just had really oddly specific parameters for what she wanted from a kid. Everyone else in the meeting was being very general when they were called on. They would say something like they were looking for kids between the ages of 2 and 9 years-old and any ethnicity. I don’t remember what she said exactly but I turned to my wife and asked if this lady was on a scavenger hunt because her request was really weird (laughing). I included this character to let people know that we need as many rational, normal people as possible to care for these kids. In the fostering class they tell you don’t have a preconceived notion of what kid or kids you’re going to get because you’re going to be wrong.
NL: How big of a role did your wife have in the writing of this story? Did you have to get her approval for everything?
SA: Not for everything but I was discussing things with her. It had been years since a lot of these things happened and we were trying to remember moments together. It was actually fun and therapeutic for us to go back to our past. When Rose Byrne joined the film she sat down with my wife and spent some time talking with her and talked with several other adoptive moms as well. It’s been a fun process.
NL: Before we wrap this up is there anything else you want to share?
SA: I want people to know that the film is a complete story. You’re going to have some really great laughs and hopefully some tears. When you come out of the film you’re going to have a more complete idea of what it’s like to foster and adopt.
Many thanks to Sean Anders for taking time out of what I’m sure is a busy schedule and sitting down with me to discuss his new film, Instant Family. Also I want to thank Jessica and Lori of Allied Global Marketing for setting this all up.
Instant Family opens nationwide on November 16, 2018.
Look for my review on or around opening day here on Nerdlocker.
Check out the trailer below:
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