Sean Anders lies about his height. I’m sure of it.
I first saw Anders seated at a table that would barely fill a breakfast nook in the middle of an otherwise empty, cavernous hotel ballroom. I hesitantly approached for our interview. As he stood up to warmly shake my hand, my eyebrows shot up as he quickly dwarfed all 5 feet 3 inches of my frame. “Hi, you’re tall! How tall are you?” “Six feet,” he says through a stubble coated grin. Now, my girlfriend is 6’2”. I’ve gotten good- really good, at telling people’s height, and especially good at telling when men exaggerate it. Sean was the first man to ever understate his height. He was definitely at least a bit over six feet.
Instant Family, his latest movie, is a hilarious and moving journey through the good, bad and beautiful of adopting kids from the foster system.
Anders may or may not yet be a household name, but his crafty works of comedic genius certainly are. He’s modest, but doesn’t have to be, with films such as Hot Tub Time Machine and We’re the Millers on his writing resume. But Anders has a humility and boyish excitement towards life and his art that comes through in his eyes, his smile, his voice- at once unassuming, confident, and brilliant.
Instant Family is a fictionalized account of a very real story. Sean Anders jokingly said to his wife one day that since they got a late start to having a family, they should just adopt a five-year-old and it would be as if they started five years earlier. To his surprise, his wife called his bluff, and seven years later the children they adopted may as well have been born to them. He admits it hasn’t always been perfect, but nothing in life is a guarantee. He is as proud of his work as he is his adopted kids, and exudes a similar twinkle of pride when he talks about both.
Anders is still chasing perfection, and looks up to his heroes with the same admiration I used to have towards astronauts and cowboys. He also does what he looked up to John Hughes for doing: balances the lightness of humor against weighty emotions, leaving the viewer wiping tears of laughter and pulled heartstrings alternatively. It’s a wild ride into adoption land.
One thing Anders does equally well is portray gay couples in the movie. He treats the characters’ being gay as an afterthought, without treating the characters themselves as an afterthought.
Here, the inimitable, affable Sean Anders sits down at that little table with me and goes deep on adoption, intentionality, gay rights and music.
In the movie, you have a great balance of different types of parents and nice variety of people as far as the kids and the parents. Is that a pretty realistic representation of the experience?
Yeah, it’s very realistic. At least from my own experience. We had a little bit of everybody in our adoption classes and in our support groups. And it’s one of the things that you realize right away, that everyone was so different from one another, but everyone had this one major thing in common - that they wanted to love these kids and be there for these kids. Just trying to make it work and create their own families.
You hit on intentionality and the luck of the draw with even biological kids earlier. You certainly can accidentally have a kid, and not even want it. (We laugh). Can you speak a little bit to the intentionality of starting a family this way - and how this might be different?
I don’t have any frame of reference, because we were pretty intentional, although just like the characters in the movie, our story started exactly like that. For a long time, we felt like we couldn’t afford to have kids, and when my career was coming online and things were going better, we had this conversation just like Mark does in the movie - “I feel like I’m going to be an old dad, why don’t we adopt a 5 year old and it will be like we started sooner?” And that’s really what led to us having a family - me making this stupid joke that led my wife and me into having the conversation. And so, we were intentional in that we did make a decision that we were going to do this. We were going to jump off this cliff and adopt what we at first thought was a kid, which turned into three kids. But so much of it along the way did feel like fate, or the universe or whatever you want to call it, because it wasn’t what we initially signed up for or what we thought it was going to be. It turned into several different changes just like it did for the characters.
What did you think it was going to be?
I think any time - well again I can’t speak for other people - but I think a lot of people, when they decide to go down that road to becoming parents you kind of think, “Oh I’ve seen all these people with their screwy kids and I’ll be so much better.” And we of course thought, there’s probably some three year old toddler that needs a home, and how that turned into 3 kids - 3 siblings over the course of the classes and the process, well, I think if they would have opened with that we would have said, “Uhhhh...” But the funny thing is, even just the way that things work out, I tell everyone that 3 kids is a great number. They can play together, and also one can be by themselves and the other two can play. Now that we’re sort of through the hard part of it, I’m so glad it worked out that way and I’m so glad we adopted siblings, because they already had this shared experience and they’re so scrappy and fun together. Anyway, I could go on and on about that.
Feel free! (we laugh). So how long has it been since you adopted them?
Going on 7 years.
Wow, I didn’t realize it had been that long. So, you’re old hat by now!
Yeah, I mean that’s the thing, when my kids - everyone asks me the question of what do your kids think of the movie, but we’re such a normal boring family now that my kids were just kind of like “Really? You’re gonna make a movie about this? What’s the big deal?”
Did they like how they were portrayed?
Well, the movie itself is a fictional tale inspired by my own experience adopting kids, but it’s also inspired by a lot of other people’s experience as well. So, I think that they definitely see elements of themselves in the characters in the movies, but I don’t think any of us felt like we were being played by the actors.
That makes sense. So, you’ve obviously written some very funny things, and this is no exception. How do you walk the fine line between being very funny, while also- there were a lot of moving moments, and I really liked the music, so how-
Wait, I want to talk about that then, since you’re the first person to bring it up!
Ok, go for it!
Well, I’ll answer your first question first, because that was the hardest part of this movie and also the most fun part - threading the comedy and the drama together. And I’ve been telling this story to everybody, and I’m going to tell it to you because it’s my favorite story ever, but early on in my career I got the rare thrill to talk to John Hughes on the phone. And what he told me was that it wasn’t the size of the laugh that counts, it’s how the laugh feels. In other words, if you grab people emotionally and get them to that place and then turn them with a laugh, that laugh feels so good. The example he cited from his movies is when Anthony Michael Hall in his movie The Breakfast Club is talking about essentially killing himself, thinking about committing suicide. And the joke turns that the gun in his locker is a flare gun. So that’s always been something that’s really important to me. And in this movie, we’ve really been able to do that a lot. Some of it is straight comedy and some is born out of tragedy, and that’s really fun.
And to your second part, about the music-
I really loved it! Was one of the first things I noticed, actually.
When you say that, are you talking about the score or the songs?
Well, I mean both, but I really liked the score, not to be a total nerd.
No! I so love- you’re the first person to bring it up, and the reason these two questions go hand in hand is I’ve always wanted to do an 80s throwback John Hughes-y kind of score, and with this movie being about parents who grew up probably in the 80s, as teenagers, it just was the perfect opportunity to go back to that style. And it turned out our composer Michael Andrews does amazing stuff with synths - it’s not all he does, but he did the Donnie Darko music - so he’s that guy. So, I called him up and said, “what do you think about this idea?” And he said, “I think it’s a really interesting idea!” So, while I was in Atlanta, what I said to him was “why don’t you just read the script and write some stuff? But write it as ‘songs’. -So what John Hughes does is, a lot of the instrumental music in his movies are actually instrumental versions of 80s songs. So, it would be a Morrissey song, but just wouldn’t have Morrissey in it - So why don’t you write some instrumental pieces but write them as songs and send them to me.” So, he got on it right away while we were still shooting, he sent me like 8 pieces that were GREAT, and I couldn’t stop listening to them, and I brought them to set on the days that we were shooting a particular scene and I would play it for the actors and say this is the music that’s going to go on this particular scene. And I was able to play the music for them, which was all so much fun.
Alright, so let’s talk gays. Gays still have trouble adopting - so what do you say to people who have struggled - people won’t even be surrogates for them?
I tell you what I say to them, is get involved with the foster care system, because I’ll tell you something about the need in the foster care system. And look, as an outsider I can’t speak to this directly, and as an outsider, I can’t speak to this directly, but I think that gay couples, with the things that they’ve gone through in their own lives are better equipped in some says to deal with kids who have come from these tougher situations and could be phenomenal parents to these kids. And there’s such a need, and so many people are so focused on getting that baby right from the mother, and I understand that but I’ll say that these kids in foster care - they need parents and they need love… I don’t know what it’s like everywhere in the country, but I do know from the people I’ve met - nobody’s picky, apart from that you’re finding good decent committed people for these kids. I think people feel like you know like as Octavia says in the movie - if you’re willing to be their moms and dads and love these kids, you’re qualified.
I really like that.
And these kids are amazing. People come in and they meet these kids. There’s this thing that Tom Saguaro says to Mark - “I can’t believe these are just regular kids!” and that was the feeling that I had the first time I saw a group of these kids, I was like, “Oh wow! They’re just kids!” You know? I don’t know what I was expecting, but they’re just kids.