Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Filmmaker Sean Anders typically delivers abundant laughter with comedies that explore unconventional fatherhood like DADDY’S HOME and THAT’S MY BOY. However, he tackles his most personal view on the matter, adapting his own experiences (and that of a few others’) as an adoptive parent of three foster children with INSTANT FAMILY.
In the heartfelt, heartrending comedy, Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) open 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). Calamity and chaos ensues, but, naturally, a caring bond also develops between the budding family.
At the film’s recent press day, the affable co-writer/ director spoke with us about everything from what it’s like to have an action-movie hero play you in your life story, to why this film’s success is absolutely vital.
Was it difficult to find a studio that would make a film like this?
Yeah. We wrote the original draft on spec. I really wasn’t sure. I thought, “Maybe this is going to have to be some low budget labor of love type movie,” but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted a big, wide release, multiplex movie, because I want a lot of people to experience this and learn who these kids are and how foster care adoption works. Like you said, I was not confident a big studio would embrace it with a wide release.
Then what happened is I went to Mark Wahlberg – I obviously knew him from the DADDY’S HOME movies. I sent him an email I worked really hard on, asking him if he might be interested in getting involved in this movie. I had no idea what to expect since Mark had so many offers. Mark called me the very next morning and said yes. He said, “I met kids in the system and this is something that’s important to me and I trust you with it.”
Once you have Mark Wahlberg, then big studios are interested in listening to what you have there. I think the combination of once we had Mark and once they read the script then they felt like it was a really genuinely funny, but honest story, then they were excited.
What I admired was that the film doesn’t shy away from capturing the serious realities of foster children. Was there a trick to modulating that balance between darker aspects and the lighthearted ones?
Yeah. Thank you for asking that, because that was the number one concern from the beginning. I knew personally that there’s a lot of laughter involved in these stories – even in some of the darker areas. It’s like what the social worker say, “You have to laugh or you’re not going to make it through it.” I knew to convey that to an audience, it was going to be a difficult needle to thread to service the reality of the situation and the drama, but to also always come back to the laughter. That, more than anything, was what we spent our time dealing with – all the way from the first draft, to the final edit of the movie.
There’s a narrative magic to blending humor and heart, but it also seems like there’s a connection with the rhythm and pacing of the editing too. I think you and Brad Wilhite do it very well here. Is this something you’ve found too?
Yeah. Gosh, thank you. These are the things people never point out. Thank you so much for saying that. We worked so hard on that. So many nights staying late at the studio working until midnight, trying to get that rhythm. Sometimes it comes down to taking out a frame here, or adding a frame there. It’s so specific trying to get that rhythm down.
I always look at it like an instrument that’s in tune. Most people, if they hear a band play, they can’t tell that the instruments are perfectly in tune, but they just know it feels right. I feel like if you’re edit is in tune in that way, the pace really feels good, but nobody really recognizes and notices that, so thank you so much for noticing that.
Many of us have thought about who’d play us in a movie, but how surreal was it having Mark Wahlberg playing you and how much did your wife love that she’s Rose Byrne?
[laughs] Truthfully it never really felt that way to me because the story really is a fictional tale that’s inspired by my story. But it’s also inspired by the stories of a lot of other families that I met along the way. I never felt like they were playing us exactly. There were definitely aspects of it and, look, it’s very flattering the thought of Mark Wahlberg playing me.
The funny part was Mark was dressed like me for most of the movie. I do just wear jeans and baseball hats and flannel shirts all the time. I think Mark did say to the costume designer, “Just put me in whatever Sean wears all the time. It’s fine.” So a lot of times, I would talk to the costume designer and be all, “What shirt is that, because I’d like to get that too.” I think there was a little bit of my wife’s fashion sense in Rose’s presentation as well.
Another thing I loved is Rose saying the lone “F-bomb.” Was it always planned she was going to be the one that says it?
[laughs] With PG-13, you know, you get one f-bomb. We wanted to put it in a place where it was really going to have emphasis and wasn’t just going to be cashed in for a laugh. I’m so proud of that moment. In so many screenings, when Rose makes that speech and hits the audience with that moment, there’s been actual applause. That makes me so happy and that f-bomb worth it.
Were there things about your own experience that you had forgotten?
My wife and I would sit down and talk about the different scenes that John and I were working on. It’s one of the great things about the human mind that we tend to block out the bad or sad stuff and remember the good times. So we really had to sit down and think about how we felt when we were at our most frustrated and when we were saying and feeling things that we’re not proud of now, but that we had to be honest about. It took a little time to go back into our past.
Do you feel any added pressure putting a personal story out into the world versus something that’s maybe more fictional?
Well, yeah. I feel a lot more pressure, but not because it’s personal. I feel it because I feel like we have an opportunity with this movie to really make a difference for a lot of kids out there. If this movie reaches a tipping point and it becomes one of those movies where everyone ends up seeing, it’s going to change people’s attitudes towards these kids in care. I think it’ll get people thinking about adoption from foster care. At the very least, it’ll make people more supportive of others who know are getting interested in it. I really think the movie can make a big difference in that way. It’s hugely important to me that the movie does well so I’m putting a lot of pressure on it in that way.
Maraide Green was working as a consultant on the film, but also there on set with the child actors. Was there insight those actors gleaned from her that wasn’t necessarily in the script?
The main thing that Maraide brought to us was…she was there every step of the way. She had grown up in care and adopted as a teenager and had gone through a pretty tough transition with her family that became a loving bond. Even her adoptive mom was on set with us. Having her around, she’s a wonderful person, always has a smile on her face. I think it put a human face on the character – specifically Lizzy, but the kids in general. It made everybody understand the reality of the positivity. In other words, somebody who’s really persevered through circumstances, but when you sit with her, she’s just a wonderful person.
Let’s talk about your collaboration with your cinematographer Brett Pawlak to get the right look since that’s also integral.
I sat down with Brett and I really liked his vibe and his attitude. I had looked at his previous work and it looked amazing. Then when we got there, I find that his approach was really simplistic. He doesn’t use a ton of lights and flags and bounces. He does when he needs to, but he’s very judicious with his equipment. He lights the whole space so the actors can really move freely around the space. Even with two cameras, it looked great. And when you’re working with kids, you have to work at such a clip. You have to move quickly because the kids have a limited amount of hours. The great thing about Brett was, it wasn’t like we were cutting corners. His natural style is to be a little minimal in the amount of equipment he uses. Therefore our set-ups would go quicker. We’d get more takes out of our kids and the movie looks gorgeous. Every day there would be some moment where I would say, “When do you think we’re going to be ready?” And he’d say, “What are you talking about? We are ready.” [laughs]
Michael Andrews’ score is a very important component here too. What sort of direction did you give him for what kind of sound you wanted for the movie?
Okay, again, you’re crushing it. Nobody talks about the music and I want more people to talk about the music. It’s so fantastic. I’ve done a couple of movies with Michael and I wanted this one to have a different feel. I called him and I said, “I’d like to go with this retro instrumentation – sort of like a John Hughes-y sound to the music.” I gathered up a bunch of John Hughes’ scores and what he often did was that he would take a song by The Smiths, for example, and he would just use the instrumental as the score in his movie.
I talked to Michael about this. I said, “I think because Mark and Rose grew up with John Hughes and the kids are actually teenagers, and because there are elements… the film almost has a BREAKFAST CLUB vibe to it – the mixture of drama and comedy – that I feel like this music is going to work.” What I asked him to do, instead of scoring it in the traditional way, was, “can you read the script and write some songs – three minute instrumentals of the songs.” We talked about it and then I forgot about it until one day in my inbox there were these eight songs he had worked up over the last two months and they were phenomenal. They were so good, I would play them for the actors. I’d say, “This is going to be in the scene you’re about to do.” Most of it is very electronic, but very emotional.
When we got into the editing process, we cut up those songs into pieces of score and where those didn’t fit, Michael created new songs. But it was always from a song approach. His songs would have a verse and a chorus and a bridge. Sometimes we would just use the bridge and sometimes the verse part. It really gave the whole thing an organic feel. I’m telling you, I listen to the raw music all the time.
You also have the Herculean feat of making me like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” again.
[laughs] Wow. That’s high praise. The story there was that was always in the script as a placeholder that we wanted there to be some kind of sweet, corny song. Because we had this 80’s tone to the score, we felt it should be from that era. We always thought we’d replace it with something else, but when we put it in the movie, it worked so well, it made you feel so good, even our music supervisor Dave Jordan, who knows every hip song ever made, he had to admit, “you know what? This song is perfect. I don’t think we’re ever going to beat it.” And we kept it in the movie and I love it too.
INSTANT FAMILY opens on November 16.