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Bill Pohlad, Donnie Emerson and Nancy Emerson – In Their Wildest Dreams

Updated: May 15

Nancy and Donnie Emerson

Bill Pohlad, Donnie Emerson and Nancy Emerson

In Their Wildest Dreams

By Jay S. Jacobs

Thirty-some years is a long time for it to take to become an overnight success.

Just ask brothers Donnie and Joe Emerson. In the late 1970s, they were teenagers living on a sprawling farm in the tiny town of Fruitland, Washington. They were both fascinated by music – particularly Donnie, who was a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. (Joe played the drums.) Seeing their passions, the Emerson’s parents Don Sr. and Salina built a state-of-the-art recording studio on the farm.

The boys recorded an album called Dreamin’ Wild, which was released on the family’s own Enterprise & Co. record label. (Donnie was 15, Joe was 17 when Dreamin’ Wild was released.) The album was a slight success locally, but never really gained much traction. In fact, Don Sr. ended up selling much of the farmland off to finance his son’s musical dreams. Donnie continued working in music – performing locally with his own band (which featured his wife Nancy on drums) and running a marginally successful local recording studio. Joe gave up on music, working on the family farm.

And that was pretty much it, until it wasn’t.

Fast forward to 2008, when a used copy of Dreamin’ Wild was bought by a record collector named Jack Fleischer at an antiques store. When Fleischer listened to the album he was pretty blown away, particularly by the song “Baby.” Fleischer started to spread the word amongst his record geek friends and over the next few years the album got enough buzz in collector circles that the album was re-issued on CD by the acclaimed boutique label Light in the Attic Records. This rerelease led to a writeup in The New York Times.

This was how filmmaker Bill Pohlad learned about the Emersons. At first, he was not sure he wanted to make a movie about their story – the popular documentary Searching for the Sugarman was out at about the same time and told a similar story of delayed fame. However, once he met the Emersons he changed his mind.

This has led to the film Dreamin’ Wild, starring Casey Affleck as Don Emerson, Walton Goggins as Joe, Zooey Deschanel as Nancy and Beau Bridges as Don Sr. Released to theaters earlier this year, the film has become a surprise success – not unlike the record which inspired it.

We recently got a chance to chat with Donnie and Nancy Emerson and Bill Pohlad about the long, strange trip of Dreamin’ Wild.

Donnie, you and your brother made an album over 40 years ago. At the time, nobody really noticed it. Then with the reissue many years later and now the movie, how crazy is it that it has been rediscovered after all this time?

Donnie Emerson: There are different stages, aren’t there. We did it, and then it took off. Now it's taking off again with the film. It's a never-ending journey. It's just an unbelievable, exhilarating time. {It will] be exciting to go out and start playing and doing the music. It's going to be awesome.

Bill Pohlad

Bill, how did you find out about the Emerson Brothers? What made you think that that was the story you wanted to tell?

Bill Pohlad: Jim Burke, a producer friend of mine, and a producer on the project, brought the story to me, asking me to direct it. There was only the article in The New York Times. I mean, I thought that story was great, but not until I met Donnie and Joe, for real, the real people, that it really clicked for me, seeing the kind of people they were and the family as a whole. I just thought they were so extraordinary that the story had to be told.

So much of the Emerson story is about the family. Joe may not have been quite as into music as Donnie was, but he was willing to put himself out there because his brother was into it. The parents were putting the farm up and taking a chance on their son. How important was it for all of you to tell the story of the parents, the family and how that related to the music?

Bill Pohlad: You could have told just the basic story of Donnie's recording, and then, and then it being rediscovered. But it was really, as I say, about the family and the interactions and inner relationships and how different that was for me. And for most movie audiences.

Casey Affleck in “Dreamin’ Wild.”

Donnie, it was a little bit darker than I expected. You look at the guilt that was built up and how you and Nancy had been working on music for many years and part of you was a little bit uncomfortable with going back to the old music when you had newer music. How important was it for you to look at both the eras of your music and the ways that things have changed over the years?

Donnie Emerson: I came to realize an appreciation of that other music that I did in the past. Trying to bring it forward, realizing how it was that my approach to doing that music was different than it was in different time periods. In the 90s, and then on to the 2000s and whenever. It was different. I started creating differently. Then I started appreciating how I used to record back then just using eight tracks. I pull that forward to what I'm doing now, which I still struggle with, because that's where the purity is in the music is being stripped down. You have to think ahead when you're recording like that. I'm trying to take that and appreciate that time period and bringing it forward. I get caught up in the DAW – digital audio workstation. You have all the tracks and it kind of dilutes your creative process.

Nancy Emerson: Can I say something about your question? Because I love that question.

Of course.

Zooey Deschanel and Casey Affleck in “Dreamin’ Wild.”

Nancy Emerson: When I was playing with Donnie, we’ve played together for 38 years so far. We’ve been married 38 years playing. We were doing some of his songs in the 90s and in the early 2000s. We've always done some of those songs from Dreamin’ Wild. He didn't care how we did it. I’d play congas. We'd have a saxophone player. He didn't care how we did it. He loved to create, so I said, “Donnie, you’ve got these songs. Can we use your songs?” That is the only reason why I play with them is because songwriting, [they are] original songs. But as soon as the album came [back] in 2011, got released in 2012, everything had to be exactly like the album. It almost drove me crazy because everything I was doing, he's like, no has to be like Joe and I did it. It’s been kind of tough.

Donnie Emerson: It’s been tough…

Nancy Emerson: The truth is, it is kind of dark, when you said the movies darker. It has been rough because he changed. All of a sudden, he had to conform to what the fans wanted, what the record label now wanted. Then the movie comes to pass. We're getting it now though. (laughs) We're working it out now.

Donnie Emerson: They’re sliding it in.

Nancy Emerson: They are his songs, you know? But we do our own songs together, too. But with Dreamin’ Wild, it was tough, because he's like, “It has to be done like this.” I said, “You do realize we're in 2012, now, and 13 and 14. Joe tried really hard at Bumbershoot [Music Festival] in Seattle and Joe’s like... (mimes drumming awkwardly) He's looking at Joe. This is 2014. I’m watching both of them. It's not sounding like the album live on stage in Seattle. But it is what it is. You got to come to peace with it.

Zooey Deschanel and Casey Affleck in “Dreamin’ Wild.”

What was it like to see Casey Affleck and Zooey Deschanel portraying you? Did you speak with them while they were working on the film so they could get a handle on who you are?

Donnie Emerson: Is that for Nancy?

That's for both of you.

Nancy Emerson: Casey got a hold of him about a year and a half prior on Zoom. He already was doing zoom, and phone calls. Then Casey was coming to our house. Casey spent a lot of time. He sat at our table. He stayed the night outside our house in a tent one night. He was cooking here. The man was watching Donnie like this. (Puts her face into her hand.) I could see Casey changing – his look, his mannerisms, everything within a year. Zooey, we didn't have as much time because she took the role closer to the film. But she's got it. She's a pro. She's got everything.

Donnie Emerson: I’ve got to say, there is one scene that I just absolutely love. Bill shot this scene where we go to the [news]stand for The New York Times. So real.

Bill, how involved were you in the casting process? When did you know that you'd found the right people to play the different characters?

Bill Pohlad: As a director, I oversee or make all the decisions with regard to that, because you have to know that these people can really deliver on the script. Obviously, I knew Donnie a little bit by this point, by the time we cast. You just see Casey as an actor and the work he's done over the years, and you kind of know or have a feeling that he can bring those two things together. Donnie has a particular style about him that you really want to be able to portray. I felt like Casey could do that without much work. I don't mean that. He obviously worked at it. But it seemed more natural for him to be able to slot into that kind of character.

Casey Affleck and Chris Messina in “Dreamin’ Wild.”

This is the second music bio that you've done. You also did Love and Mercy, about Brian Wilson, who was mentioned in the screenplay of this film, too. Wilson is such an over-the-top genius, but he also had a lot of demons. On the other hand, Donnie and Joe were both much more normal, down to earth types of guys. Why did you think the fact that this was just about two brothers wanting to make music and going on over the years that adds interest to the story?

Bill Pohlad: Again, it depends on how you want to look at a character. You can take it as deep as you want. In other words, not to say that Donnie has as many demons as Brian does, or whatever, I don't want to compare those two like that. But I mean, you look at a person like Donnie, and the more you look at them, the deeper it becomes. I got to know Donnie over the period of writing the script and knew that there was a lot going on there that might not meet the eye. That was the desire to portray that.

How has the movie changed your live performances? Do you get more people coming in to see the shows now?

Donnie Emerson: Well, we've been off right now. We're getting prepared to go on tour. We've got a new agency that's going to be handling us. It's awesome, you know? We're going to be able to do the old stuff from the past and new stuff, as well. Obviously, Nancy and I wrote in the film together,

Nancy Emerson: The ending song “When A Dream Is Beautiful.” We've actually been promoting that and performing it in LA and New York. We're going to be doing that song. So the live performance scene, we've only did about three of them. Just to promote right now.

Donnie Emerson: It's not normal for us to do that, to not be playing. We're used to playing a lot. This is so not normal for us. We're, we're used to playing a lot of dates a year. But we decided to pull back and do more helping with the film, obviously.

Nancy Emerson: When we perform live again, it'll have a stronger purpose.

Walton Goggins, Beau Bridges, Barbara Deering, Casey Affleck and Chris Messina in “Dreamin’ Wild.”

One last very quick question. Did your parents see the movie and what did they think? They played such a big part in the music, too.

Donnie Emerson: My dad's a quiet guy. He's quiet. But when he first saw the screen, what did he do, Nancy? He stood up.

Nancy Emerson: His mom and dad were sitting behind me because we all sat separately. But the mom and dad of course, sat together. I watched them smile and cry. I kept looking over. I didn't know what was more entertaining, the movie for me to watch, or watch them. (Donnie and Bill laugh.) They were loving. They live an hour and a half away from Spokane. They've come in three or four times so far to see the film. He's 92. She's 89, and she doesn't drive. She's never driven. But they're coming in for the movie.

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: September 30, 2023.

Photos #1-2 © 2023 Jay S. Jacobs/ All rights reserved.

Photos #3-7 © 2023 Felicity Donarski. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions. All rights reserved.


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