Atlantic City is not a city in which to seek redemption, but in first-time director Emanuele Della Valle’s debut feature, the aging gambling town is one former Philly cop’s only path to vindication in the eyes of his estranged child.
Dubbed Wetlands, the noir depicts a desolate, dangerous Atlantic City in its off-season as a fictional storm, Hurricane Suzy, threatens to bear down on the area. That makes things more difficult for Babel “Babs” Johnson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Suicide Squad, Game of Thrones) as he moves to the A.C. to re-join the police force and rekindle his relationship with pre-teen daughter Amy following a bout with drug addiction. However, with bitter ex Savannah (Heather Graham) wrapped up in a relationship with a drug-dealing surf shop worker known as Surfer Girl (Reyna de Courcy), Babs must work to keep his family safe from an area crime lord.
Filmed entirely on location in Atlantic City and its surrounding areas, the film begins a run at the Ritz at the Bourse on Friday.
For Della Valle, 42, who wrote and directed Wetlands, the decision to set the movie in Atlantic City was an obvious one. The son of Diego Delle Valle, owner of Italian fashion brand Tod’s Group, the director grew up in a small resort town on the Adriatic coast of Italy, and experienced what a place like Atlantic City might be like during the winter months. “There are some similarities,” Della Valle, now a New York resident, says. “This small, tourist-filled town that gets very desolate and devoid of people when the winter comes. Then, crime starts moving in.”
Delle Valle, who owns a summer home in Stone Harbor and is married to a Philadelphia native, says he spent about two years writing and researching in Atlantic City. “I would stay in a hotel and ride with the police during the day and write at night,” Della Valle says. “I called it ‘method writing,’ and I wanted to be in the element and understand the geography.”
The result is a bleak script, one that is in the tradition of the noir fiction that Della Valle says inspired him since childhood. His noirish leanings would work perfectly in Atlantic City — especially considering that it is not often used in film, something Della Valle considers a shame. “Visually, it is so interesting — this desolate, Americana-style place,” he says. “It makes for striking cinematic imagery. With the exception of Boardwalk Empire, you have to go back to the ’70s — Atlantic City or The King of Marvin Gardens — to see it [in movies]. Then, it was forgotten as a place for film.”
The director didn’t have an easy time convincing his financiers that shooting in Jersey was a good idea. New Jersey, after all, is one of the few states that does not provide tax credits for film productions, making shoots more expensive. But he was adamant. “I would have rather dropped the story than film it in a place that is not authentic,” he says. “It would have failed.”
Instead, thanks to the authenticity lent to the movie by filming on location, the flick works — though, in the most gritty, cinematically seedy kinds of ways. Despite the crime-filled, dark take on A.C. and its surrounding area, Della Valle says he isn’t worried about rubbing Jersey natives the wrong way.
“The people of Atlantic City know exactly what goes on in their town,” the director says. “It is a dramatization of life. If it stirs a little bit of controversy, I don’t mind.”