Three years ago, Sean Anders and John Morris had an idea to do something different. The writing partners, who were behind raunchy hit comedies like Hot Tub Time Machine and Horrible Bosses 2, began sketching out a screenplay about the foster care system.
And yes, they know what you’re thinking. Mostly because they thought it, too. But this isn’t your average case of comedians in Hollywood turning to drama; Anders himself (along with his wife) was in the process of fostering and adopting three children. The duo decided to turn the Anders’ experiences — the good, the sad and the funny — into a movie, and the beginnings of Instant Family were born.
The flick, which hits theaters on Friday, follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne), a married couple who think that they’re very happily childless (keyword: think). They start to dip a proverbial toe into the possibility of adopting a baby and then find themselves with a set of three siblings — one of whom is a full-blown teenager. The expected emotional roller coaster that follows includes temper tantrums, a sexting debacle, and a few heartbreaking moments with the children’s birth mother.
While much of Instant Family is lifted from Anders’ experience, he enlisted a host of experts to make sure that the story was as authentic as possible — and reflected every aspect of the foster care and adoption process. It began before the script was even written.
“The first person I called was my social worker,” Anders told EW. “She was retired, so she referred to Allison Maxon, who is plugged in at almost every level of foster care and adoption, so she was a wealth of information about things that I didn’t know anything about.”
Maxon soon arranged for Anders to get together with a group of families who had adopted through foster care, so that the filmmaker could interview the parents and children. One of those children was Maraide Green, a teenager who had been in and out of the system since she was eight years old.
“I bounced around multiple foster homes for a few years,” she explained to EW. “I know what it’s like to live through that, and I know what it’s like to live with a negligent parent. I was lucky enough to find my family — or, they found me — and I got adopted when I was 13.”
After the meeting, Anders sent her an early draft of the script and she replied with a few notes: Green believed it was important that the film address the stereotypes that often surround foster children head-on.
“A lot of people think these kids are just flooded with all of these issues from their traumatic upbringing,” she said. “And that it makes them destined to be drug addicts or just not good kids, but that’s completely false. A lot of them are so strong and inspiring and they can do so much — they just don’t have a family to support them.”
She also wanted to make sure that Instant Family didn’t gloss over what it’s really like to have a birth mother who is unable to care for you.
“I give Maraide a lot of credit for the movie’s authenticity,” Anders said of her script notes. “In our first draft, John and I were a little nervous because we didn’t want anyone to feel we were vilifying the birth mother, because we know that’s a tragic situation for any mom to be in. She helped us find a sweet spot where we weren’t accidentally writing a person with a heart of gold who made one mistake in her life.”
This exchange was, as Green soon learned, a very serendipitous one.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she laughed. “I didn’t think that me sending feedback would go anywhere, but we kept in touch and then a couple years later he called me, told me they were making the movie and that they’re bringing me to Atlanta [to set]. It’s crazy.”
Once the script passed muster, Anders set out to cast the movie — another step that involved making sure that authenticity was front and center. Wahlberg, who plays a version of Anders in the movie, spent time interviewing children who have gone through the foster care system, on top of having teenagers of his own. Rose Byrne, who plays Wahlberg’s wife, was relatively new to the process and dedicated many hours to preparation. She spent over an hour on the phone with Anders, making sure that the film’s portrayal was going to be as honest as possible, before she officially signed on to the project.
She then had dinner with Anders’ wife, and set up a meeting with Maxon, the social worker, to get her perspective. The final step for Byrne was sitting down with a group of mothers who had fostered children.
“I’ll never forget it,” she told EW of the experience. “The amazing thing was how much we laughed; they were so engaging and so willing to laugh at the hardness, the challenge, and the joy. They were so candid, and kind, to let me ask my zillion questions.”
To maintain this spirit on set, Anders brought in several experts, including Green, who technically served as a PA (her official assignment was to play wrangler to Gustavo Quiroz and Juliana Gamiz, the child actors who played the youngest of Wahlberg and Byrne’s three children), but also provided advice and input to the director and his actors as they created moments ripped from her own life. She also spent time with Isabella Moner, who plays the oldest daughter, Lizzie, to talk through what her own teenage life was like (yes, that means plenty of questions about boys), as well as with an actress who delivers a speech — during a scene that depicts a prospective parent orientation — that was written directly from Anders’ many conversations with Green.
While Green hoped that Instant Family would help to squelch damaging stereotypes of children who had been through the system, the other cast and crew each had their own goals. Byrne said her intention was to leave the audience with “hope and joy.”
“This subject is often depicted in a pretty grim way,” she said. “It’s totally merited, but this is different.”
Anders wanted to bring awareness to the issue as a whole and pay homage to all the people who helped his family along the way — like the social workers, in particular. In Instant Family, Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer play the counselors who guide Wahlberg and Byrne through the process (while also providing the audience with some well-timed humor), and their storyline was created with the help of the writer-director’s real-life experts.
“Allison [Maxon, the consultant] wanted to make sure that social workers were depicted as really being helpers and being the sage characters and that was absolutely true in my own story,” said Anders. “It’s a really overwhelming job and we wanted to convey the love and heart that these people have. Octavia and Tig did a wonderful job of doing that — every time we show it to social workers they’re so grateful that they get to be the good guys in this movie.”
Even more, Anders hopes to show audiences that while there are challenges that come with adopting, there are fantastic pros, too. He wrote some of his family’s most joyful (and private) moments into the movie, including a scene on the first day that the three foster children are home with Wahlberg and Byrne. Mark’s character, Pete, calls the kids to dinner and Ellie (played by Byrne) can’t believe how crazy the phrase “Kids, dinner!” sounds coming out of his mouth
“That whole scene played out exactly like that the first night my kids were home,” said Anders. “Watching that happen on camera, even though it was a light and fun moment in the movie, it was very real and emotional for me.”
And spoiler alert: It will feel just as emotional for the audience, too.