Sean Anders sat in a mostly empty event space at Four Seasons Atlanta, casual in a ball cap with a “Wagner Custom Renovations” logo — a nod to the fictional company in his latest movie, “Instant Family.” He patiently awaited a delivery from South City Kitchen around the corner.
“I wasn’t really that familiar with Southern food before I shot in Atlanta,” he said. “Shrimp and grits was kind of a new thing for me, and I haven’t had it in a long time, so I’m about to have it right now.”
Anders was in town late last month to promote the new movie he wrote, directed and produced for Paramount based on his personal experience as an adoptive parent. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, the movie will be released Friday.
The inspirational comedy is a bit of a departure for Anders and his writing partner John Morris, who have collaborated on hit comedies such as”‘Daddy’s Home” and its sequel starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg; “We’re the Millers,” with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis; and the Farrelly brothers’ sequel, “Dumb and Dumber To,” with Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels.
The following interview with Anders, 49, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This was your first project based on your own life experiences. How was that writing and directing experience different from your other films?
This whole experience has been really different, because of (that), but also because of the subject matter, and there is so much more drama in this movie than movies that I’ve done in the past. We worked really hard on this one, just making sure that this movie was always funny and doesn’t veer off into becoming a full-blown drama. We wanted the movie to be a comedy from the start, but balancing the comedy and the drama was the most challenging part of this movie — but also I would say, the most fun part as well, because that was a new challenge that was really exciting.
Was this your first time filming in Atlanta? Why did you choose to do it here?
This was my first time. As I’m sure you know, the tax credit, and the facilities and the crew and just everything that’s available to us here. Also, it was gonna be a wintertime shoot or early spring, so we weren’t going to shoot this in Canada or something in the snow. It just worked out for a number of ways to shoot in Atlanta.
How was the experience filming here?
It was great, it was really great. The worst part is that the food is so good. I was eating so much barbecue, which I’m about to have later today because I’m only in town for one day, so I’ve got to get some Fox Brothers while I’m here ...
The experience on this movie — and look, I know everybody says this about every movie — but I’m serious, ask anybody affiliated with this movie... It was charmed. The cast was so cool, the crew was so great. The kids who were in the movie were wonderful to work with; they had great parents. I think everybody knew that the movie had a little bit of a higher purpose involved with it. So I think it really made the whole cast and crew kinda pull together in a way that is unusual.
Then at times throughout the movie we would have real adopted families, like for example, the adoption fair that’s depicted in the movie (shot at Piedmont Park), most of the kids and families that are in the background in those scenes were real families that adopted their kids out of foster care in the Atlanta area. So that was very special.
Are there any other places you filmed that stand out?
I don’t know the name of it off the top of my head, but we shot at a family services center... I wanna say, oh gosh, where’s the Big Chicken? Tell me where the Big Chicken is.
Marietta, good. It was really close to the Big Chicken — I still have a Big Chicken hat, by the way. That’s where we shot all of the adoption agency stuff, in their parking lot and in their interior, and that was great to be in a real location like that, shooting there. Oh, Kell High School — this enormous, really nice high school that was really welcoming to us and helped us. A lot of the kids from the school came out. They were off that week and played in the background with us and that was a really great experience, too.
The movie is set in the fictional Terrance County. Does that have any significance? Is there a reason you didn’t set it in Atlanta?
We didn’t set it in Atlanta because when we were writing the script I knew more about the laws, the courts, all of that in California, because that’s where I went through all of it. But we didn’t want to set it in LA, because we still wanted it to feel kind of Anyplace, USA. The significance of Terrance County, it’s kind of funny, my sister Torri worked in the art department on the movie ... she came to me and said, “What do you think of Terrance County?” That’s our dad’s name.
The house with the stained glass window. Was that an actual house in Atlanta?
It was. I’m really glad you asked about that. (Laughs.) Our production designer, Clayton Hartley, did this amazing thing where we went out scouting houses, and truthfully I got on Zillow and I just started looking at houses all over Atlanta that were for sale — I’m sorry, we were traveling all over town so I don’t remember what part that was in — but I found that house on Zillow and we went out and we scouted it and it was great and it had that stained glass window.
We had been looking for an element in the house that people could identify the house by in various states of repair. So we did a little bit of work inside to make that the finished version of the house, and then the other exteriors you see are digitally enhanced versions of that same house to just make it look as crappy as we could possible make it.
The interior was done on the stages at Tyler Perry Studios. Clayton Hartley did an amazing job — I think he had a really good time doing this, too — of creating that (house Pete and Ellie first walk into at the beginning) with the same footprint as the house that we scouted. That stained glass window that they already had was the perfect tie-in to let everyone know that’s where we are, no matter how much nicer the house gets.
How much of the movie is based on actual things that have happened?
Almost all of it is based on actual things that have happened, but not all happened to me. The story is inspired by my own life and experience of adopting kids out of foster care, but I wanted to cover some ground that I didn’t cover in my own experience. I met a lot of families along the way in my own journey, but when we started writing the script, we sat down with a lot of adopted families, made a point to really sit with a lot of girls who had been adopted as teens, some of whom are grown now. There was a young lady named Maraide Green who is a consultant on the movie, who we met early on, and she started giving us notes on the script and wound up coming to Atlanta to shoot the movie with us, and was with us every step of the way, and was a huge help. A good part of her story sort of winds up in the movie as well.
Did you hire your own kids (13, 9 and 8) as consultants as well?
(Laughs) I didn’t hire ‘em, I didn’t have to pay ‘em, I got ‘em for free. But I mean, yeah, I think it was more about with my wife and kids, sitting around talking about our memories. This movie takes place at the beginning of the process, and we’re such a normal boring family now — because we’re seven years into it — so it really took some effort to sit down and kind of remember, particularly the hard times, because our brains are kind of mercifully programmed to kind of forget the hard stuff and sort of remember the good times. So when you have to go back through and really remember those feelings of when things were difficult, it’s not always easy.
Have your children seen the movie? What was their reaction?
Yes, many times, too many times. (Laughs.) They loved it. They sort of feel like, well we’re just this boring family, why would there be a movie about us? And it’s a good thing that they’re so kind of well-adjusted into all of it that it seems sort of unremarkable to them in some ways. But then when they saw the movie I think they really understood, and it definitely took them back. There are many moments in the movie that are very specifically taken from our family’s past, and I think when those moments came up, the kids really recognized them.
Do you mind sharing what some of those moments are?
Sure, one that seems like a silly, cute moment, but it was kind of a big one. There’s a moment in the movie where Pete calls the kids to dinner and he says, “Kids, dinner,” and then Ellie hits him and says, “Oh my god, that sounds crazy!” And then they share a kiss, and the little ones and they’re going, “Eww, gross.” My wife and I had the moment of the kids saying, “Kiss again, kiss again.” But that moment was important because it is such a weird thing, particularly on that first night, people don’t realize that when you adopt kids who are already walking and talking there’s gonna be that first night where they’re in your house, and you’re kind of their parent right away. And you’ve never... you’ve babysat other people’s kids and whatever but you’ve never really interacted with your own kids, and now you’re doing it. So even just calling your kids for dinner was such a foreign, weird feeling, you know?
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