A Reel Hit : Filmmaking: After a screening of his student movie, 'The Passion of Martin,' Alexander Payne was the talk of the town. Now the UCLA graduate is learning to direct deals with agents.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alexander Payne has caused a buzz.

Last month, "The Passion of Martin," a 50-minute film Payne made as a student at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, was one of dozens of student films shown to industry personnel. Ever since, the recent graduate's answering machine has been smoking, recording requests from dozens of agents and development people to, please, call them back.

Although the process isn't as formal as it is in professional sports, the motion picture industry also has its draft. Industry executives keep an eye on the top film schools, including UCLA and USC, ready to recruit the young men and women who could be the Spielbergs of tomorrow. Payne, 29, is one of this year's hot prospects. With luck, he could be directing his own Hollywood movie in a year or two, one of a small but growing number of filmmakers who have leaped directly from the classroom to the big time.

"There is a lot of talk about him around town," said David Min, a creative executive with Imagine Films. Min first heard about Payne when an agent friend said, "You have to see this tape." Min did.

"It's a brilliant film," he said. "We'd like to see anything he has."

Payne says the fuss began overnight, after "The Passion of Martin" was shown at an industry screening arranged by UCLA film school alumni, who include director Francis Ford Coppola, super-agent Michael Ovitz and screenwriter Shane Black. "The next day, I got calls from people who were there," Payne said. "And the next day, I got calls from people who weren't there but had heard from people who were."

All of sudden, Payne was confronted with the one aspect of filmmaking he really hadn't thought much about.

"Three weeks ago, I didn't know anything about the industry," he said recently, taking a break from interviewing prospective agents and meeting studio personnel. "At UCLA, we're in this wonderful film school environment where we can just concentrate on the work without outside considerations."

Payne, who just received his master's degree, already speaks of film school with a certain nostalgic affection.

He and his fellow students were too caught up in learning their craft and making their films to think much about the movie business. "There are a thousand compromises working in the film industry," he said. "Film school is the time never to compromise." Payne often slept on a cot in his campus editing room during the year and a half it took to make "The Passion of Martin." And when he wasn't making his movie or talking film with his peers, he sometimes spent 12 hours a day watching films, including such favorites as the work of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa and Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel.

"We want to get attention from the industry," he said. "That means we can continue to make films. But that's not why we make films."

Occasionally, he said, he would prepare himself for real life after graduation by sitting in on one of the lectures on "Power in Hollywood" that Columbia head Peter Guber gives as part of the UCLA film school's producers program. "But the best preparation for this is craft," Payne said of the process of breaking into the business. "Studying editing, studying directing is more important than thinking about this."

According to Ruth Schwartz, who heads the UCLA Department of Film and Television, the major film schools have been important sources of industry talent since the 1960s. Of the 20 or so students who graduate from the UCLA production program each year, about three-quarters find work as professional filmmakers. Far fewer generate intense interest, perhaps two or three a year, she said.

Film school can be a crucial break for people like Payne, who don't start out with friends or family already in the business. Payne, who grew up in Nebraska in a family of Greek restaurateurs, majored in history and Spanish literature at Stanford. He was without industry contacts until 1985, when he came to UCLA, "where you go to school with your future connections."

Payne said he is surprised by the response to "The Passion of Martin."

"It's a little bleak in outlook," he said. Payne's movie, which even his parents found a bit grim, concerns a photographer who falls in love with a woman who admires his work, becoming more and more obsessed with her. Some viewers describe it as a black comedy. Payne says it is "a funny tragedy."

An agent at ICM, who asked not to be identified, said it was the best student film he had ever seen. The agent's capsule description: "David Lynch meets Albert Brooks."

Payne said he had no idea whom the film would appeal to, except, "I knew my friends would like it." Although he is supremely politic and quick to praise the professionalism of films made by students at rival USC, Payne thinks the special strength of UCLA's program is that it encourages "a strong sense of individual vision." As a requirement for the master's degree, students in the film production program at UCLA must write, direct, edit and produce their own movies--"one person, one film," as Payne put it.

UCLA films are sometimes quirky and often not as slick as those made elsewhere, he said, but "at their best, they reflect the person who made them." Payne thinks industry viewers respond to honest, individual expression just as non-professional audiences do. "I think anyone who tailors his or her film to the industry shoots himself in the foot," he said.

Besides conceiving and executing their films, students have to come up with the money to pay for them. "The Passion of Martin" cost $26,000. It was financed, Payne said, by "student loans, credit cards, savings, parents, brother, stealing, cheating, scamming, conniving, prodding."

In Payne's view, nothing beats filmmaking--not even being wooed. "All the compliments in the world don't equal the joy of making a great cut at 2:30 in the morning," he said. "I know it's ephemeral, this flurry of activity. I value it only because it may help me make a film."

It is too soon to tell, but Payne's investment in "The Passion of Martin" could pay off big. While it's unlikely that he will be given $35 million tomorrow to make a movie, he might well follow in the footsteps of others, such as USC's George Lucas, New York University's Martin Scorsese and UCLA's Paul Schrader, who showed great promise as students and were making small-budget features soon after graduation. Payne not only has the talent, one observer said, "he's good in a room." In other words, he can convince, even charm the decision-makers.

Payne said he has a feature project in mind, which he declines to discuss.

In a few weeks, Payne has already learned enough about the industry to know that he could cool down as quickly as he heated up. "I don't know if it's so much flavor of the month as taste of the millisecond," he said, taking a brief tumble from the tightrope of tact he has been walking so ably in recent meetings.

Right now, Payne is in Cassino, Italy, at a student film festival. But before he left, he hired an attorney ("he lived across the hall from me my freshman year at Stanford"). He also signed with agent David Lonner of ICM.

"I always try to maintain high hopes and low expectations," Payne said, as he began what could be an enviable future.

"If nothing in the movie industry pans out, I can always teach in a private high school."

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