The True Story Behind Dreamin’ Wild: Donnie & Nancy Emerson with Bill Pohlad
Dreamin’ Wild, the true story about what happened to singer/songwriter Donnie Emerson (played by Casey Affleck) and his family when the album he and his brother, Joe (played by Walton Goggins), recorded as teens was rediscovered after thirty years of obscurity and was suddenly hailed by music critics as a lost masterpiece. While the album’s rediscovery brings hopes of second chances, it also brings long-buried emotions as Donnie, his wife Nancy (played by Zooey Deschanel) and father Don Sr. (played by Beau Bridges) come to terms with the past and their newly found fame.
We talked with the real Donnie Emerson and his wife Nancy, along with director Bill Pohlad to talk about family, this story being brought to screen and the powerful emotions we see surrounding second chances, hope and vulnerability expressed through missed expectations.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: I absolutely enjoyed getting to see Dreamin’ Wild, and you know what a story. Donnie, let’s start with you. Centrally, it’s it obviously about you and your brother and your wife. So talk to me about Dreamin’ Wild and kind of how it had a second chance at success.
Donnie Emerson: It’s literally surreal, okay? It’s surreal, Kelli. It’s not… I’ve always known things were going to happen for me because I, that’s how I was raised. That’s how I am. Everything is, it’s not by chance with me. There’s no luck. I don’t believe in luck. Never have. People say, “Oh, you’re lucky.” No, I’m not lucky. I’ve just… This is my life. You have your life and it’s predestined. That’s how I look at things. So, when this all happened, it was like, I’m so grateful, but I always felt it. I’ve always felt it in my whole life. I’ve always been this way, and I think that’s… It’s like when you see the film and you see this young boy, I have to look at myself that I was… Well, this is who I am and that’s what I do. And my dad saw it in me, and so it’s just carried on right now and I’m embracing this whole thing. Literally just… Yeah.
RM: It’s so exciting. But I can imagine looking at it from your lens and then bring in Bill, so the idea of taking this story and bringing it to screen, I mean, it’s more than just music. I love that it’s about dreams and about missed expectations and about family. Talk to me about what it looked like to be able to get us to feel and see all those things in a short and condensed movie time.
Nancy Emerson: Can I answer that real quick because… So we were given the script a couple of times. Bill would send and say, “I hope you like it.” And he was really gracious to let us look at it and make some changes stuff. And we really wanted to be respectful, but we wanted him to be respectful too. Very important. Huge. And Casey was extremely respectful when we met him, so that was on the table. Respect, honesty, authentic, what does it feel? You say the word all the time. I love it.
NE: Yes. And it’s true. And that’s what came out of this. But it took time because nobody knew each other. None of us knew each other, we’re getting to know each other. And it was during Covid too, so you can imagine. But the reason why I want to butt in on that is my brother, I grew up… He’s 10 years older than me. He was a phenomenal bass player. I grew up as a kid listening to him. So 10 years apart, I thought he was the coolest. He played his bass so good. Donnie heard him when I met Donnie. Well, he slowly just put that bass guitar in the corner. There’s like 10 of them, raise his kids, built this beautiful home. You know where I’m going with this. All of a sudden I’m on the phone with him telling him a little bit more, a little bit more about what’s happening with the making of the film and this. He is listening, the big brothers listening to me. I get a call about six months ago. He’s 68 years old going on 69.
He just got into a new band in LA. He’s having a blast. And so what I’m saying is he got it just from hearing us talk about what’s happening with this film. It’s about second chances, third chances. It’s about doing it again, it’s about not giving up, it’s about through family. So him and I as brother and sister, our family, the excitement. He’s now playing with a really good original band in LA and I mean, where did this come from? If you would’ve heard his tone, he said, “I’m the same guy.” He was like, “I’m drunk. Look, it’s over it. My guitar, my amp were in the corner.” It was horrible. I was like, “Who are you?” We talked to him, Donnie. Donnie says, “I don’t even recognize your brother’s voice right now. He’s so excited.”
We’re going to see him next Saturday. He’s coming to our show next Saturday. He’s so excited. But I… It’s unbelievable. Just from this film, and I know that’s been happening with people that already have been involved. I get phone calls. We get messages from parents of children, children who had parents. It’s amazing. This ride is so real. It hits everybody. It hits everybody if they let it, you know?
RM: It does make you reflect on what you’re passionate about. So Bill, talk to me about being able to draw that out on screen for us to see.
Bill Pohlad: Well, I mean, you got to go in to making a movie with a sensibility and a passion for whatever the story is. In this case, it really was, the music was amazing and the story was intriguing and all that, if you just read about it or something. But really was meeting Donnie and Joe and the family, you know? That’s what really intrigued me the most, and it is a great responsibility, a huge responsibility to tell the story of real people. It’s one thing to make things up and kind of create some drama that way, but to try to depict a real story with real people who lived through various things. I mean, it’s a huge responsibility. So I took it very seriously, and it took a while to kind of find the story in it, but really at the core of it’s really the family and the feeling or the love that’s, that surrounds them that is intriguing to me, so.
RM: Donnie, your dad is played by Beau Bridges, and I loved that. He is such… He’s in your corner. He is such an encourager, and he is that person that is constant with just the praise, so much so that at leads to, I think, one of the most powerful scenes in the whole film where you have that encounter. Maybe talk to me a little bit about your relationship and then having to see that kind of relived.
DE: Well, watching Beau Bridges play my father was just spot on. I mean, I’ve said this before to other people, spot on. My dad’s soft-spoken, has a direction, believes in you, doesn’t look at the obstacle, looks at the journey and the means to getting to where we got to get to going, get to make it happen. That’s my dad. It’s always been that way. But he also has a strong wife who believes in, she’s got amazing faith in God, Jesus. You know what I mean? It’s big time. So when I see my dad, the strength of my dad, I see my mom off the side, giving him the support. Watching my father on screen, when I watch Beau Bridges on that screen, I see my dad. I’ve told this to Beau many times since the film is… I’ve seen it. I just can’t help it. I tell him, “You gave me a gift that I’ll never be able to repay. I’ll see my dad for the rest of my life.” I told this to Bill as well.
The relationship I have with my father is when you see that ending scene, that scene where they’re together, and my dad tells him, “I just want you to play.” I really wanted to get away from my dad. I don’t know how Bill captivated that thing, because that’s how I felt. I didn’t want to go out there
NE: Should I something? Well, it is amazing because Donnie and I moved to Vegas for a few years to perform, and I was doing my thing. He was doing his thing, and then we started doing our working together in Vegas. But after about four years, I said, “Donnie, you got to go back home. We got to move back to Spokane. You got to move back. You got to be near your mom and dad.” Because the love that Donnie had for his mom and dad… Vegas was wonderful. We got a lot of… Like I said, I was doing my thing a little bit. He was doing his thing, but we had to come back home because he loved and missed his parents, and I could see it in Vegas, and I said, “No, we got to go.” And so we came back to Spokane and it was the best thing we could have done.
RM: No, I think that was great because I think family is so important, and I love that you were able to be vulnerable and to be… Back to that word of integrity and authentic with what those relationships look like, because it makes it so relatable to us as audience members maybe at different points and times in our lives. And then a testament to having such great actors, not only want to be part of the project, but then to fill your suit. Zooey Deschanel, I mean, Walton Goggins, Casey Affleck. All of them, you could tell the care that they put into making sure that they were representing the best versions of yourselves.
DE: Absolutely. I have nothing to say except I see a whole album on stage, literally, I want to say photographs literally. When I see Walton playing my brother, it’s almost like that’s Joe.
NE: And it’s one of our… Because I just saw Walton in something yesterday. I’m not going to say the name because I don’t know if I’m allowed to, but totally opposite of Joe. Totally. And I’ve seen… I’ve said this over and over and over. Every one of these actors, I have seen them in movies, and so he plays so many different characters. Walton plays so many different characters, and yesterday I just had so much fun watching him completely opposite from Joe. He just did a great job as Joe. Casey got Donnie a hundred percent, just not a hundred percent of the time because there’s only an hour and 50 minutes and there’s only a certain type of emotion. They were trying to cover this, what was happening with Donnie regarding this family, but nailed it.
RM: I couldn’t agree more. And maybe Bill, we’ll let you end with the final words here. I do think that this is going to impact audiences, and I think that it’s beautifully woven with the music and with all the themes that we’ve talked about, having love and mercy, having some of these things in your background and repertoire for you, what’s your hope for the way that audiences receive it?
BP: What immediately attracted me to it and most attracted me is the sincerity, the authenticity of the family and all the… Yeah, it’s not all simplistic relationships. They’re dynamic and they have strengths and weaknesses, and we all do. So I think trying to capture that kind of authenticity is really what it’s all about, and I hope people will take that, can see the… Whatever, the depth and sincerity of the family and take something away from that for their own lives.
RM: Thank you so much for sharing your story and for making it come alive for us so that we can use it. And I can’t wait for audiences to see it, and I’m telling everybody about it too.
Dreamin’ Wild hits theatres August 4