John Singleton has his own way of working. As a film student at the University of Southern California, ''I told my teachers, 'Look, don't f--- with me. I won't come to class, but I'll bring you a script at the end of the semester.''' Some things don't have to be taught: By graduation, Singleton was being represented by superagent Mike Ovitz's CAA, and five months later he had a film in production at Columbia Pictures. Last week, the 23-year-old took his Boyz N the Hood to Cannes. ''It's in-your-face cinema that's very poetic at the same time,'' says the writer-director. ''I've started a whole new movement.''
''The last person I've seen with that kind of confidence at that age was Steven Spielberg,'' says Columbia chairman Frank Price, who signed Singleton to a three-year deal. Just how does it work? ''I go to Frank Price and tell him what I want to do next,'' says the filmmaker. ''And he says, 'Okay.'''
Like Tre Styles, the hero in Boyz, Singleton was raised and still lives in south-central Los Angeles, where surveillance helicopters hover overhead at night and the law can be as dangerous as a rival gang. ''It's a place ruled by doughnut-eating, gun-wielding Nazis both black and white,'' says Singleton. ''I lived first with my mother and then with my father,'' he says. ''That was the catalyst for the film.''
Given his rapid success, it's all Singleton can do to keep from ''getting mired in the Hollywood scene.'' At industry parties he likes to tell people he steals cars for a living. His latest screenplay, about a young black woman who is a poet and a hairdresser, ''is a masterpiece,'' he says. ''I want to finish it before Boyz N the Hood comes out, because you're only as good as your last film.'' The kid learns fast.