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'Wild Nights With Emily' offers a surprising, humorous take on poet Emily Dickinson

Molly Shannon plays poet Emily Dickinson in “Wild Nights with Emily,” which screens at the WideSpot as part of the Flyway Film Festival on Oct. 20 at 6:30 p.m. Minnesota actress Susan Ziegler, right, plays Dickinson’s beloved friend and sister-in-law. Submitted photo

PEPIN — How does a reclusive, 19th century "lady poet" like Emily Dickinson become the subject of a zany lesbian comedy? It takes a little brazen creativity, a lot of scholarly research, and the inspired casting of SNL comedian Molly Shannon as Dickinson, with Minnesota actress Susan Ziegler as her lover.

"Wild Nights with Emily," written and directed by Madeleine Olnek, will screen at the WideSpot Performing Arts Center in Stockholm at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, as part of the 11th annual Flyway Film Festival.

Dickinson scholar Dr. Erika Scheurer, from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, will lead the post-screening discussion, along with Susan Ziegler and Elizabeth Dickinson, a descendant of Emily's uncle.

Olnek, an award-winning filmmaker, playwright and Guggenheim Fellow, used Dickinson's letters and poems to paint a much more cheerful portrait of the poet than that of a reclusive spinster afraid of having her work published.

The film makes a convincing case that Dickinson had a lifelong love affair with her childhood friend and sister-in-law Sue, only to have her true identity erased by Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), a meddling acquaintance who became Emily's posthumous publisher.

Dr. Scheurer, who not only teaches seminars on Emily Dickinson but also organizes 13-hour marathon readings of all Dickinson's 1,789 poems, said she was impressed with how the film brings to life the scholarship on Dickinson's intense relationship with Sue.

"The film brings front and center the witty, lively Dickinson that we find in her letters," said Scheurer, "and it shows Sue's crucial role in Dickinson's writing."

Sue is portrayed by Susan Ziegler, a familiar face from film and television (Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 (2012), TiMER (2009) and Hello, My Name Is Doris (2015)), also known for her theater work in New York and Los Angeles. She grew up in Minneapolis and met Olnek during their years at New York University.

"I'm grateful to be a part of this project and to work with Madeleine again," Ziegler said. "The reaction we've gotten to the film has been amazing. This story is finally being told, and it has meant so much to so many."

Olnek became interested in the topic after reading an article about how advances in science have shed light on historical figures, including Emily Dickinson.

"Infrared technologies are restoring erasures to her papers," Olnek said in an interview with Variety. "What was being uncovered in these erasures were things she had written about Sue.

"And then there were all these other letters Emily wrote to Sue that were just sitting there. The image of Emily Dickinson as this recluse spinster was so big in people's minds, they couldn't see the letters for what they were."

Ziegler is pleased that she'll be in town to present the film to the Flyway audience on Oct. 20.

"I can't tell you how excited I am to help introduce 'Wild Nights with Emily' at the Flyway, and to experience the festival myself," she said.

The Flyway, which runs from Oct. 19-21, will present 16 feature-length films and four short film programs at three locations along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin. The venues are the Big River Theatre in Alma, WideSpot Performing Arts Center in Stockholm, and The Minema in Pepin. The full list of films can be found on the Flyway website.

Tickets for individual films ($12, or $8 with a student discount) are available on the website, along with tickets for the Oct. 19 opening night party ($40).

The Flyway's annual celebration of cinema draws film enthusiasts and filmmakers to the Western Wisconsin region along the scenic shores of Lake Pepin, an area of the Mississippi River that widens into a lake. In its eleven years, the festival has attracted national attention from industry professionals and has been named one of MovieMaker Magazine's "Twenty-five Coolest Film Festivals in the World."