Donnie Emerson on Long-Delayed ‘Dreamin’ Wild’ Success and ‘True Gentleman’ Casey Affleck’s Biopic Portrayal (Exclusive)

Donnie Emerson, who found success as a musician 30 years later than expected, is proof that dreaming big pays off. 

As teenagers working on their Washington state family farm in 1979, Donnie and his brother Joe Emerson crafted dozens of songs in the state-of-the-art recording studio their father, Don Sr., built for the musical duo. But it wasn’t until around 2008, when blogger Jack Fleischer unearthed and championed their self-released album Dreamin’ Wild, that Donnie’s angsty lyrics and soulful rock melodies found their audience.

His “unbelievable journey of ups and downs,” as Donnie, 62, tells PEOPLE, included a 2012 album re-release from Light in the Attic Records, a popular cover of their song “Baby” by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, and profiles in the New York Times and beyond. To experience this unlikeliest of resurgences after Don Sr. and family matriarch Salina defaulted on bank loans and lost land to pay for young Donnie’s dreams, he now says alongside wife and fellow musician Nancy Sophia Emerson, is “overwhelming. I feel so honored. It’s all just exhilarating.”

The latest unexpected twist in the Emersons’ story is writer-director Bill Pohlad’s Venice Film Festival premiere Dreamin’ Wild (in theaters Friday, Aug. 4), starring Casey Affleck and Noah Jupe as Donnie, Walton Goggins and Jack Dylan Grazer as Joe, Beau Bridges as Don Sr., Barbara Deering as Salina and Zooey Deschanel as Nancy. 

“There’s a lot going on,” Nancy, 58, admits to PEOPLE. “The first thing we try to do is respect each other’s situations.” That’s true of a big-screen biopic now and the family’s initial realization the Dreamin’ Wild album was becoming a word-of-mouth favorite in the early 2010s. “We were at home and our daughter was on the internet,” she remembers. “She was only 11, looking at something on YouTube. And she said, ‘Daddy, there’s Uncle Joe and you!’ A video on YouTube with the song ‘Baby,’ sure enough, there were 14,400-and-something hits.”

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Dreamin’ Wild — the film — is “grounded in family values,” says Donnie, who adds “it’s an out of body experience watching yourself being portrayed.”

Casey Affleck’s Music Ambitions Come to Fruition Decades Later in ‘Dreamin’ Wild’ Trailer (Exclusive)

Affleck, he adds, “was a true gentleman. And he nailed me in the part.” The actor’s preparation reportedly included over a year of conversations with Donnie and his family, as well as visits at their Fruitland, Washington home. 

“He came a few times and started to really turn himself into Donnie,” recalls Nancy. “I could see Casey was starting to act like Donnie, starting to look like Donnie. He was opening our refrigerator and making the salad in our kitchen and saying, ‘Nancy, where are the tomatoes, the cucumbers?’ He started washing dishes one day.”

She adds, “He stayed the night in a tent that’s on the side of our house, like a glamping tent. It’s amazing.”

As for Deschanel, Nancy says she’s a fan not only of her screen work — and films like 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, in which she costarred with Affleck — but also her music. “When they mentioned Zooey’s name, I was like, ‘One of my all time favorites!’ And I had heard her singing, she’s unbelievable. I was very happy with it.”

Donnie and Nancy say they were just as invested in an authentic screen portrayal of their lives as Affleck, Deschanel and Pohlad were. “If Donnie and I just paint everything like, everything’s so sweet and so nice, what are people going to learn?” asks Nancy. “We get really hard on each other at times, but we’re very soft with each other.

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Donnie Emerson, Bill Pohlad and Casey Affleck.

Courtesy of River Road Entertainment

“That’s what I love about this movie. It’s different than what people might expect, but I’ve heard such good feedback of how they could relate to it — the relationship with their family, their friends, their brothers, sisters, mom and dad. And everybody, I think everybody can relate to music.”

“Music is the soul of it all,” agrees Donnie. Writing with Nancy or playing with Joe and his other collaborators, he says, is about “not even just being that proficient on your instrument; I think it’s being completely connected to your soul. Because if you can just completely surrender yourself, that’s probably the way it’s supposed to go anyhow.”

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When asked what he tells musicians — especially those with limited resources and wild dreams, like 17-year-old Donnie had — his advice is simple. “Relax,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about that big golden ring over there. You’re going to grab that ring. Don’t worry about it.”

Noah Jupe in Dreamin' Wild

Noah Jupe in “Dreamin’ Wild”.

Courtesy of River Road Entertainment

And what would he tell young Donnie, if he could go back in time? “The times you wrote with your brother in that studio were precious,” he says. “They are precious. Hold on to those moments.”

Dreamin’ Wild is in U.S. theaters Friday. The film’s soundtrack features an end-credits song, “When a Dream Is Beautiful,” written and performed by Donnie and Nancy.

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