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In the opening scene of I'm Not Scared, from Italian director Gabriele Salvatores, a group of children race through a vast field of golden wheat, an age-old image of fertility and promise.

The film, set during the record hot summer of 1978 in an impoverished community in the heel of Italy's boot, the region of Apulia, is about promise betrayed, as a 10-year-old boy discovers a kidnapped child bound in the bottom of a well near a dilapidated house.

Opening in theatres today, the film is based on an internationally successful thriller by 34-year-old Niccolo Ammaniti, which has been compared to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Stephen King's Stand By Me. The story evokes the rash of kidnappings that took place in Italy in the 1970s, and beneath its simple surface, reflects the country's divisions between the wealthy north and the poor south, which, says director Salvatores, "through years of neglect, has become run by a kind of law of its own."

The director, an effusive man in his early fifties, is a Neopolitan by birth who has spent his adult life in Milan, first as co-founder of Milan's Elfo theatre in 1972, and for the past 20 years as a filmmaker. Though he has made a dozen movies, I'm Not Scared is only his second film released in North America, through the high-powered Miramax. His first international success, Mediterraneo, the story of a group of Italian soldiers defending an uninhabited island during the Second World War, won a best foreign-language-film Oscar in 1992.

When it came to adapting I'm Not Scared, there was no question of who the writer should be. The story started out as a screenplay that Ammaniti converted to a novel to satisfy a contractual demand for a new book by his publisher.

Ammaniti is grouped with other young Italian pulp-fiction writers who emerged in the mid-nineties, known as the " giovani cannibali" (young cannibals). But for Salvatores, the attraction of the book was more about genre-bending than any inherent sensationalism in the subject.

"It was a coming-of-age story and a thriller," Salvatores said in a recent interview in Toronto. "I wanted to emphasize how the two are intertwined."

First, he asked Ammaniti to remove all scenes that did not involve the boy, Michele, so he could keep the child's perspective. He also liked the idea of a thriller set in the wide open daylight. The vast wheat fields in the isolated community were often mentioned in the book and Salvatores decided they were essential to his theme of growth, and the way the "gilded surface" could hide dark things beneath.

He shot 80 per cent of the film from a height of about 11/2 metres - the size of the 10-year-old character, or the grown stalks of wheat. One of his models was old Tom and Jerry cartoons, where adults were usually seen only from the legs down. He also used primary colours, such as children use to paint with.

"I also used wide lenses because children have a difficult time focusing on a particular thing - they tend to move closer to see what they want to see. I learned a lot about children making this movie. I also learned there's a hormone that governs curiosity, which we have until just before we reach puberty."

The biggest concern was casting the right children.

"Children don't act as adults think of it - they represent ideas of themselves. 'I'm a cowboy, and he's a policeman' - that kind of thing.

"I went back to my theatre training, basically [Konstantin]Stanislavsky. I didn't ask anyone to read for me. I brought them in to talk and I picked kids who had something going on in their lives that was like the characters they played."

Giuseppe Cristiano, for example, who plays the protagonist Michele, has parents who work opposite shifts at a factory and he is often responsible for taking care of his younger brother.

"He's a kid, in a sense, who hasn't been allowed to be a kid," Salvatores says, "and you can see that sadness in him."

Finding someone who understood what it was like to be kidnapped was a little more challenging. The boy who was chosen, Mattia di Pierro, is a reclusive child who spends a lot of time by himself reading, usually under a blanket with a flashlight.

Salvatores asked Mattia if he had ever been locked in a closet as a punishment. He hadn't. The director asked him if he ever woke in the middle of the night frightened by the dark? No, the boy said. His nightlight was always on.

Eventually, Salvatore told him to go home and think about what being in a hole might feel like. The next day the boy told him that he thought he understood: "It's when you're very sad about something and you can't tell anyone about it."

Salvatore promptly cast him, reasoning: "How could I not? That was the best description of clinical depression I'd ever heard."

As a final technique to keep the children both intrigued and spontaneous, Salvatores shot the entire film in sequence, but didn't tell the children what was about to happen until the day of shooting.

At the end of the day's shooting, the children would ask him what happened next in the story. Each time he would say: "Come back tomorrow and you'll find out."

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