During the writing process for his new film, Emanuele Della Valle spent nights on patrol with Atlantic City police officers.
He spent his days talking to local surfers on Ocean City’s beaches.
And when he began filming in the resort, he made sure to treat his cast and crew to White House Subs for lunch.
The writer-director’s finished product, “Wetlands,” premieres this weekend. The film, which took four years to complete, centers around a disgraced Philadelphia police officer who follows his estranged wife and daughter to Atlantic City to get back in their good graces. The cast includes Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (“The Mummy Returns”), Heather Graham (“Boogie Nights”) and Christopher McDonald (“Happy Gilmore”).
In staying true to its dominant setting, the movie was shot mostly in Wildwood, Atlantic City and other South Jersey towns.
Della Valle’s wife is from Philadelphia, and he said he had spent the past 15 years traveling to Cape May and Atlantic City. He said he saw Atlantic City as a city with huge cinematic potential — one that fit with the dark story he wanted to tell in “Wetlands.”
“I thought it was this incredible town that, you know, was left to its own devices. I thought it was a good story to tell,” he said.
It’s far from the first movie featuring Atlantic City. “The King of Marvin Gardens” (1972) and “Atlantic City” (1980) are among many previous films highlighting the resort.
But the city and other South Jersey locations almost have their own roles in this film. When Akinnuoye-Agbaje — who plays the main character — walks across the beach toward a hut, the Great White roller coaster at Wildwood’s Adventure Pier is tucked in the screen above his shoulder.
Shots of the wetlands in Stone Harbor, the vintage motels lining Wildwood’s busy avenues and Atlantic City’s urban environment are all part of the film. Other scenes were shot in Margate and Avalon.
“(The) atmosphere was very nice. And that’s important,” Della Valle said.
Della Valle and his team began preproduction about February 2016. Two months later they started filming, and wrapped up final scenes by May 2016.
Shooting in the offseason, when the shore towns were desolate, was necessary to reflect the dark mood of the story, Della Valle said.
“If you look for darkness, there are parts of it in the shore,” he said.
The film features crooked characters and, in some scenes, extreme poverty. As someone who travels to South Jersey often, Della Valle said he didn’t want moviegoers to be offended by the way he depicts the area.
“I would like all of my friends from the shore and everyone I know not to be rubbed the wrong way,” he said.
He does, however, want his audience to take something away from the film.
“The kind of America I’m portraying is not the America we think about every day, but it exists. With class and people, there’s a lot of poverty. I want the audience to be entertained but I always want to make them think,” he said.
Della Valle said he planned to attend screenings in Philadelphia and New York this weekend and at Harbor Square Theatre in Stone Harbor next week.
The movie also is being shown at the Frank Towne Stadium 16 in Egg Harbor Township through Thursday.
For more information about where to attend premieres of the film, see wetlandsfilm.com.