When I was 7 years old, my family began fostering babies. Often these kids would be placed with us after being abandoned just days after they were born. Many of them were never even given a name before their mothers left them at the hospital. When I was about 9 years old, we took in a little boy and his newborn sister. My family eventually adopted them.
So, when I screened "Instant Family," starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, so many aspects of the movie rang true: The way the foster children acted out, their desire to be with both their birth mother and their foster parents, and how other people reacted to their family. But what also rang true, and it is a story not often told, is how the kids in foster care are not solely defined by their trauma or their status as “foster kids.” The movie tackles misconceptions about who fosters and the stereotypes and cultural tropes we have about the children and youth in the foster care system. On top of all, "Instant Family" is also genuinely entertaining.
I had the opportunity to speak with Sean Anders, who wrote, directed, and lived "Instant Family" in real life, and Maraide Green, a former youth in foster care who consulted on the film.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Juliet Vedral, Sojourners: Tell me about the movie. I just had the chance to watch it the other day, and I really enjoyed it. I was particularly interested because my family fostered and then adopted my two younger siblings. There were a lot of things in the movie that rang true. Why don't you just tell me about what made you write it and tell your story, and how you went about doing that?
Sean Anders, "Instant Family": Before I say that, you said you fostered and adopted how many kids?
Vedral: My younger brother and sister. We fostered like 11 I think in total, but we adopted my brother and sister.
Anders: How old were you at that time?
Vedral: I was 8 when we started fostering and I was 9 when we got my brother and sister. Just because of the complications with parental rights, they were in foster care with us for three years, went back [to live with their birth mother], and then she gave them back to us because she just wasn't able to take care of them. The adoption process took a few years after that.
Anders: Oh, okay.
Vedral: I was in high school by the time it was finally done.
Anders: That's great. I mean it sounds difficult, but that's great. In my life, my wife and I adopted three kids out of foster care about almost seven years ago now. We got into it exactly the same way the characters do in the movie. I made this dumb joke one day about feeling like an old man and maybe we should just adopt a 5 year old so it would be like we got pregnant five years ago. Totally kidding. My wife ran with that idea. Then I got interested in it and we started going down that road. We went to an adoption center, just like it happens in the movie, with no intention of getting a teenager. We were very scared of that idea, but we wound up meeting a teenager at the adoption center and her younger brother and sister. We, very reluctantly and with a lot of trepidation, wrote them down on our form and we were matched with them. That's all pretty accurate to the movie. Where my story starts to diverge, is that after a couple of weeks, while we were waiting for the next step, we got a call from the social worker saying that it wasn't going to work out. The kids had been in care for four years and the teen girl was really holding out hope that her mom was still coming for her, so she refused the placement. Then we have these other three kids, and those kids are now my kids, who I love dearly.
Vedral: Oh wow!
Anders: My kids were 6, 3, and 18 months when we met them. When the idea came up to make a movie, I really wanted to include a teenager. I never forgot that girl. Teenagers are very misunderstood in the adoption process. In order to get that part of the story, I sat with a lot of families who had adopted teenagers, including Maraide's family who's with me now. Say ‘hi’ Maraide.
Maraide Green, "Instant Family": Hi.
Anders: Maraide really impressed me and my writing partner, John Morris. We started sending the script to her, and if you don't mind, I'll let her pick it up from there.
Green: I would respond with a lot of notes, specifically to the Lizzy character - the teen girl. I just really wanted to make sure that she didn't fit any of the stereotypes often associated with kids who grow up in foster care. I didn't want all her trauma to kind of take over her whole character. I didn't want her to be defined by her experiences in the system. I wanted her to kind of show that it makes her so much stronger. I had a lot of fun working on the script. I was also able to share with Sean a lot of my story. I'm lucky, because I was able to use the kind of bad experiences that I had growing up and transform them into this movie that's going to help so many more people.
Vedral: That's amazing. Sean, what did your kids think of the movie? Have they seen it? If they have, what are their thoughts?
Anders: They love it. They've been a part of it for so long that it's not as though they just sat down and watched it cold. I had been talking to them about it and the script. They were there on set sometimes. They came to the edit bay. I think it's been a fun thing for them to be a part of. They've definitely seen it so many times now that they're ready to see something else because they've been to certain events and stuff like that. My whole family's been really helpful and really positive.
Vedral: Are you hoping people will be more interested in fostering older children? I know that a big issue is that people basically want babies.
Anders: Yeah. I think in general, I just wanted to tell a more complete story that isn't just focused on the trauma and the tragedy. When you see the movie, you can tell that we didn't shy away from that, but we wanted to talk more about the laughter, and the joy, and the love that comes from building a family this way. The message of the movie is just that these kids are really misunderstood. Like Maraide was saying, they're not just these damaged souls people sometimes think they are. They're just kids that need parents to love them.
Vedral: Maraide, what are your thoughts? Is there more you want to say about this? What are you hoping people take away from it?
Green: I'm just hoping that it changes the way that like, if someone says 'foster care,' it changes the way that they automatically respond. I don't want people to go into it with fear. I want people to look at these kids and be proud of them. I want people to look at them and see them as strong kids who have gone through so much, instead of looking at them and being afraid and thinking that they're scary.
Vedral: I've spoken with my husband about maybe fostering at some point, when he's older. People are like, "Oh my gosh, that's so hard. You don't know what you're going to get." I'm like, "You don't know what you're going to get when you have biological children. There's no guarantee that there won’t be complications or whatever."
Sean, what was it like to have Mark Wahlberg play you?
Anders: Awesome. To be totally honest, he's really not playing me. He's playing a fictional character that I'm sort of a jumping off point for. I'm not a house flipper in real life, but I am interested in it, I do it as a hobby - working on houses and doing design work and such. There's a lot of elements of the character, and obviously a lot of the emotions that the character feels along the way, that came from me. I was able to counsel Mark on how those different situations feel. That was great. I don't really see it as Mark and Rose playing my wife and I. Although, I do see moments throughout the movie where I feel as if they are playing us for a moment. That makes it a little bit easier to direct someone, because you're not really telling them to be you. You're just guiding them emotionally through the moments.
Vedral: In the scenes with your family, how much of that happened? In terms of how your family reacted and the different types of reactions. Where did those scenes come from?
Anders: Well, there were definitely people who were close to us who had these either cautionary or straight up negative reactions. Then there were other people who later confessed, once they met the kids and once they felt comfortable with our situation, saying, "Boy, I didn't want to say anything before, but I thought you guys were really out of your minds." Then as we met with other families, we found that this was just a very common thing.Getting back to what Maraide was saying, I think right now unfortunately when people hear the words ‘foster care,’ their minds go to some dark and scary places. They're negative about it because they're trying to protect you. Like you mentioned before, I've been kind of making this joke for a while, that when you announce that you're pregnant and you're going to have a baby nobody says, "Oh my God, that kid could grow up to be a drug dealer."
Vedral: Oh yeah. I thought about that the whole time I was pregnant. I was like, "What if I have a sociopath?"
Anders: Right, you never know what you're going to get in either case. The kids who are in the system are really just wonderful, great kids. That brings us back again, to what I hope people take away from the movie, that they don't need to be afraid and they don't need to spread negativity when somebody they know wants to get involved in this. It's an incredibly positive thing. It's the best thing that ever happened to me, that's for sure.
Vedral: I think there is a line, I remember writing it down, about how only special people who volunteer and do nice things are the ones who foster. I really appreciated calling that out because I think that is a typical belief, which is like, "Oh, that's just for like superstar, do-gooders. Not everybody can do that." I appreciated that the movie showed that that isn’t the case.
Anders: Thank you for saying that. That was something that was important to me, because I certainly did not feel special.
Vedral: I'm not saying you're not special!
Anders: I certainly didn't feel special when we got into it. I did have that concern, that we were not, my wife and I weren't those kind of do-gooders that we needed to be to pull this off. Now in hindsight, I realize it really just comes down to your commitment to being a parent. Almost everybody I know now has become parents. I think that if people don't overthink it too much and they just jump into it, whether it be parenting biological kids or kids from the system, that's what it comes down to, is you just decide that you're going to be a parent, and then you love these kids. You do what you've got to do.
Vedral: That was so well said, thank you. Those are all my questions. Is there anything you want to sort of leave on or say, a last thought?
Anders: You know what, I do have one more thing. A lot of times we do spend the whole time talking about foster care and that kind of thing. It is important to me to let people know that the movie is legitimately really funny. I think you feel that because you've seen it, and we've seen it with audiences. I guess if there's one other thing that I'd like to just get out there in the world, is that yes, this is a movie that has a purpose and it has a message, but I think it's also a very funny piece of entertainment as well that people can just have a good time with on a Friday night.
"Instant Family" opens in theaters Friday, November 16, 2018.