Stalwart indie filmmaker Bill Pohlad today premeres in Venice Dreamin’ Wild. His directing follow up to the critically acclaimed Brian Wilson film Love & Mercy also follows a music story, though one far less familiar. Casey Affleck, Noah Jupe, Zooey Deschanel, Walton Goggins and Beau Bridges star. When Donnie Emerson (played by Affleck and Jupe) was a teenager growing up on his father’s farm in Fruitland, Washington (population 791) he spent his days writing music and dreaming of becoming a music star. And everyone in the family became invested in that dream, including his brother Joe (Goggins) who became his drummer, and especially his father, Don Sr (Bridges). He mortgaged his farm to build a $100,000 recording studio, and more to help Donnie make and release his first record. It went nowhere and the bulk of the farm had to be sold when the loan came due. But 30 years later, the overlooked album was rediscovered by the music scene. Suddenly Donnie, who continued to struggle and write and play his music, had gotten a taste of his childhood dreams. But it comes with the guilt of failure that haunted him for years, and involves having to play the songs that meant something as a teen, but not as a 50 year old man who has evolved as a musician. And it is all true.
DEADLINE: I’d never heard about this singer’s story. What about the story made you want to make a movie about this family?
BILL POHLAD: I had never heard of it either, to be honest. When I heard the song Baby, I felt like I had heard it before. It’s one of those songs that kind of sticks with you and you don’t know where it came from. Jim Burke the producer, he’s from Minneapolis and we’ve known each other a while and he pitched me the idea. They didn’t have a script yet, and I said no. To be honest, I felt like it was too much like Searching for Sugar Man and I didn’t like the idea that it had been done before. I gently said no, although he asked me to read the article and listen to the music. When I did both, I was somewhat intrigued, but it didn’t really click until I met the family.
I went up there to Spokane and I met the whole family, not just Donnie, and they were just such extraordinary people. The story is about his second chance and it was a strong one, but it was the family that really convinced me to do it. After meeting them, we decided together that I would write it. Over the course of two years I wrote it and I got to know them really well and it kept drawing me in.
DEADLINE: The story became known after a New York Times article on the rediscovery of the lost album Dreamin’ Wild, but there’s so much bundled up into Donnie. There’s guilt that he cost his father the better part of his farm and his land, after dad mortgaged everything to finance his son’s dream. And when the album was discovered decades later, Donnie had evolved, and became frustrated that audiences wanted this overnight sensation to be locked in at 50 playing songs he wrote as a teen. The family seems pretty buttoned-up. How did you get all of the guilt, angst and dashed dreams that play out on screen?
POHLAD: When you say buttoned-up, I can’t say that I’m not a little bit buttoned-up from my own Midwestern upbringing. I understood it. But that first visit out there really did it for me. Donnie picked me up at the airport and six hours later, driving back from the farm, he was crying. He was open enough with me to, you know, kind of let that pour out. He is a very kind of mercurial guy, and that’s part of what makes him so interesting to me.
DEADLINE: Was he crying over unfulfilled dreams?
POHLAD: Getting to know him over the years now, that’s really just how he is. He is just kind of all over the board. He’s like a child in a way and maybe he hasn’t really gotten a chance to express his emotions, on the one hand, and kind of doesn’t know how to deal with them. A lot of us just kind of learn this process of guarding ourselves and you know he hasn’t learned to do that. He is in some ways like a kid still. I met him 10 years after the article had been written, but he hadn’t moved that much to be honest. He maybe attributed more of what was going on to God’s plan, that was kind of the only thing that I perceived had infiltrated his understanding of it. There was a little bit of cynicism about the business and how it had treated him.
DEADLINE: Casey Affleck, who won the Oscar for the indie Manchester by the Sea hasn’t been the lead of a movie in awhile. Why him for Donnie?
POHLAD: Donnie is kind of otherworldly. He’s a little bit like Brian Wilson, to be honest, sometimes a little bit of this out in space, but other times, again, he’s right on it. I felt Casey had that ability to kind of portray that dichotomy. He looks like the real Donnie, and he straddles that character line so well.
DEADLINE: You last directed Love & Mercy, a film about Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson. Few will know what Donnie sounded like as a singer. Did Casey sing?
POHLAD: Not to take anything away from Casey, I think he would admit that he’s not really much of a singer. The real Donnie helped out, whenever we needed something to kind of augment Casey’s work. Casey spent a lot of time with Donnie and his wife Nancy before the film actually got going. Casey dived into the character, but he obviously knew that he couldn’t do that on the singing side. And so, we had a combination that included Dave Cobb who was the music producer and you may know his work, you know, A Star is Born and Elvis as well.
DEADLINE: You’ve been involved as producer and financier of some seminal indie films, from Brokeback Mountain to Tree of Life, Into The Wild and 12 Years a Slave. You enter the festival circuit with an acquisition title at a moment when we are still waiting to see if adult audiences will return to specialty theaters, after the pandemic. Where do you see the business going?
POHLAD: I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. We’re trying to figure it out the best we can. Honestly, we can only control the material. If it’s something that I’m moved by, or we are moved by, then we go for it. But to be honest, I didn’t know where this was going to end up. I didn’t immediately go, well, River Road should produce this. It seemed like a small film and even at that time I didn’t think, you know, I wasn’t sure where it would go commercially. But then, you get sucked in and you believe in the story. And you put blinders on a little bit and go, I believe in the value of this story, the emotion of it, and we’re just going for it. Thankfully, others came along and supported the idea, so it wasn’t just me doing it.
When you’re making a movie you have to just do it based on the material. I could’ve made this more of A Star is Born kind of thing, where there’s a bigger canvas, but then you turn it into a different story. I believe in this story, and what intrigued about this family, that they were just so authentic. You’ve never met these people in the movies before, I felt. You keep saying to yourself, this is the kind of movie that people need right now.
I knew it was going to be risk, but I hoped that what we would deliver in the portrayal of that family would win out. And we’ll have to see if that’s true and I’m hoping that it is, you know?
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