[INTERVIEW] Screenwriter John Morris on the emotional hook of ‘INSTANT FAMILY’
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Surprisingly, it wasn’t an immediate decision for the stellar screenwriting duo of John Morris and Sean Anders (DADDY’S HOME) to tackle the story that drives INSTANT FAMILY. However, a handful of years later and with the perfect amount of reflective distance behind them, Morris pitched the idea of Anders’ personal introduction to fatherhood through foster care adoption to great success.
The fictionalization of Anders’ true story (and that of a few others) tells the poignantly comedic tale of Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne)’s journey into parenthood after opening their hearts and home to three siblings in the foster care system – rebellious teen Lizzy (Isabela Moner), sensitive Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and spitfire Lita (Julianna Gamiz).
At the film’s recent press day, I spoke with the talented screenwriter about everything from the tonal tightrope walk they made, to the auto-biographical details peppered throughout, to the scene that will make you weep the most.
I’m wondering if we could go back to when the idea for this film was born. Was it you or Sean who decided his real life experiences would make for a good film?
It was kind of a long process. It was almost around the time we were working on THAT’S MY BOY, Sean was looking into the whole adoption process. From there, it took several years, but then he was doing the classes and meeting the kids. He would tell me these stories that were fascinating. It was probably a couple years after he had the kids where we were just talking.
We pitch ideas back and forth and thought write what you know. I said, “What if we told your story?” He was like, “Really?” I said, “Yeah. The stories like what you told me about the woman looking for an African-American child to adopt. That’s funny. And the story about cutting the strings because the kids have no connections when they’re put into the system. That’s heartbreaking. There’s good stuff there.” Eventually, once we decided to write this, a lot of those same scenes he told me, struck a chord in me, wound up in the movie. One in particular – he had written a letter to the courts stating, when they were trying to figure out what will happen to the kids and he said, “I just want what’s best for the kids.” Later on, they re-wrote that same letter to the judge saying, “I know what’s best for the kids.” And that really landed with me and stayed with me for years.
Through the process, we decided we wanted to expand the world a little bit, because when he got his kids, they were all fairly young – they were 1, 3 and 5. We thought how great it would be to have a teenager – her world could involve her friends, her boyfriend, school and all that. We did some research and found a young woman named Maraide Green, who came through the foster care system. She was really open and honest and gave us these great insights and viewpoints. Sometimes we’d have it wrong and she’d be honest and say, “This isn’t how I felt,” and then steer us in the right direction to connect with the Lizzy character. She was a real valuable asset to the process.
One of the things I loved here was the budding mother-daughter relationship between Ellie and Lizzy. The hairbrush stuff made me weep.
Exactly. That didn’t come from Maraide, in particular, but did come from another social worker we worked with, Allison Maxon. She gave us a lot of great stuff. We knew we needed a moment in the script to connect them.
One thing, Maraide gave us was the more close you get to your adoptive parents, in her case, the more she would pull back. They’d make one step forward and she’d take two back because she didn’t want to get hurt again. We thought that was great for the relationship. We needed a point on their arcs and we called Allison to ask. She said, “Well, I heard this story the other day about this hairbrush.” And I was like, “Oh my god that’s perfect.”
There’s also this brilliant metaphor of Pete and Ellie remodeling a house, seeing the good in the worst situations.
The metaphor was pretty obvious to us. Sean actually does like to do these renovation jobs. We couldn’t make the guy a director. That’s just too specific. But we Sean’s remodeled a few homes and we thought, “Let’s make them house-flippers. That’s a great metaphor.” It just fit.
This seems like the type of film where, when people find out your covering a topic, they’re eager to share their experiences with you and add to the authenticity. Is that safe to say?
Totally. We met with a bunch of parents and kids. The care group stuff is a real thing. We joined these care group meetings. Sean had gone to a bunch, but when we were making the movie, he brought me. We were talking to these people and they were all so willing and open to talk. The best part about it was they were hilarious. These meetings would have this uproarious laughter at these stories and they all bonded. It was like, “Oh. this is going to work as a comedy.” We were concerned that we were making light of this topic, but after talking to them, we thought it was going to be alright.
Speaking to that, was there a trick to balancing the darker aspects and the lighter ones?
Yeah. It’s tough. We didn’t want to go too dark with it, but we didn’t want to sugar-coat it too much, so we found a line where we’re talking about real stuff. The first scene when they meet one of the kids who went through the system, who mentions being sexually abused, it was like, “No. We’re actually going to talk about real stuff.” But it’s not going to get so uncomfortable you’re having to take your medicine by watching this film. It’s still going to be a fun time and heartwarming, hopefully. And if we can make a difference at the end of the day and change the perception about the system and kids in the system, that they’re just kids and they need family, love and hope like everyone else does.
Once the cast start signing on, do you tweak the characters to suit the actors?
For sure. The biggest one we had to tweak was Tig’s [Notaro] role. We didn’t write with her in mind, but once we got her, we couldn’t be more thrilled to get her. We adjusted the dialogue to fit her deadpan cadence. It was a lot of fun to write her.
What was the biggest scene that changed the most from start to finish?
We weren’t sure about the ending for the longest time. We had written an ending… you know the scene where Ellie reads the letter than she and Pete wrote? In the original draft, we had a scene where she completed the letter and it struck a nerve with Lizzy and the mom runs out of the courtroom. We played the whole end scene, that’s now in the side yard with Joan Cusack, that all happened in the courthouse and then the movie ended. It always felt slightly off to me, or cliché. It was in the script for a long time. During production, we were a couple weeks out from shooting and we thought what if we took it further. That felt more real. That’s what’s in the movie now.
A lot of that stuff finding the tone, we wrote in either direction. Some scenes were sadder and some were funnier. When we were editing the movie, we could dial it in – like if a joke is too broad, or it gets too heavy. The editing process really informed what the movie was going to wind up being.
How did this creatively satisfy you?
It’s obviously more personal for Sean, but I was there watching it unfold in real time. Being able to put that on the screen and write something original that’s not a remake, or not an existing IP is always fun for me. We birthed this thing the whole way.
INSTANT FAMILY opens on November 16.