"It's such a big deal out here," says Robert Gardner, the Leesburg filmmaker who was nominated for an Academy Award this year. "In Washington, it's something that comes on TV once a year. But out here, it really is an event, isn't it?"

Welcome to Hollywood. Gardner was in his room at the Beverly Plaza Hotel several hours before the ceremony and confessed that because of "the big deal" he was suffering a slight case of butterflies. "And they may increase as the day turns to night."

Avid moviegoers should not be dismayed if they do not recognize Gardner's name.

In fact, by Gardner's own admission, the category for which he has been nominated seldom raises eyebrows or quickens pulse rates. "In all the years I've watched the show, I probably didn't pay too much attention to the documentary short subjects," he said with a laugh.

Tonight, he sat through nearly half the show until his category came up -- only to hear the award given to the film "Witness to War."

"It's very exciting," he said after the show, despite his loss. "I live a long, long way from all of this. For me this was high-voltage event. The thing that impressed me most was the pressure. It was intense. It was terrifying. I felt like I was in combat."

His category was the 10th given out. "Waiting that long was excruciating," he said. "By the time they announced the winner of my category, I could only breathe a sigh of relief. But I tell you, I liked it. I hate to call it an inspiration -- but I'd like to try this again."

He said he loved the glamor and admitted he enjoyed the stargazing. "There were a lot of them there. They always look shorter in real life."

Asked what the most memorable moment of the evening was, he replied without hesitation and with a laugh: "Losing!"

As producer-director of the 28-minute "The Courage to Care," Gardner had made his entry into Oscar territory. (His competition, in addition to the winner, had been: "Making Overtures"; "The Wizard of the Strings"; and "Keats and His Nightingale: A Blind Date.")

A saga of moral commitment, "The Courage to Care" uses contemporary reminiscences and old still photographs to detail the courage of the gentile men and women who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.

Gardner's involvement with the project began in September 1984. By the time production was completed, said Gardner, he had an inkling that the film might be worthy of academy consideration.

In the beginning, he sounded matter-of-fact about the award and its implications. Just a few days prior to the ceremonies he said, "An Oscar would be nice. You know, it would be a great edition to a re'sume'. It might help me make a little more and get more jobs."

But by the day of the big event, Oscar Fever had struck. And the atmosphere in Los Angeles was no small part of it.

"I can't believe it -- but it's the big story in the newspapers around town. I saw the report about people camping out at the Music Center the day before the thing even happened. I'm impressed, I'm excited, this whole thing feels great."

Gardner said he would attend the ceremonies with "my adorable wife Char" and his film's coproducer and writer, Patrick Prentice ("and his adorable fiance'"). Gardner bought a tuxedo specifically for the event.

"After tonight, I assume I'll have lots and lots of social functions to wear it to," he joked.

Gardner lives with his wife and two children (a son, 13, and a daughter, 9) on a 200-acre farm nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A filmmaker for 18 years, he got his start working for the Public Broadcasting Laboratory, a precursor to the Public Broadcasting System.

"I did everything for them. I was an assistant to the cameraman, an assistant to editors, an assistant to producers. I was a messenger. I cleaned the toilet."

When a reporter laughed, he said, "I really did clean the toilet, I mean I did everything."

Gardner, 38, has since received four local Emmys for his work on documentaries. "It's a pretty good living. I made about $60,000 last year, so I'm comfortable." Laughed Gardner, "Well, I know by Hollywood standards that might not be so great. It's about what a third assistant director gets in L.A., right?"

Though he was born in San Francisco, he intentionally keeps his distance from the West Coast -- especially Los Angeles. "It's hard to describe my feelings for Los Angeles but, as a place, it just makes me nervous," he said.

He's much more at ease in New York. "My aim is to go there and work," he said.

He said he doesn't aspire to move into feature films. "What I like to do is what I can do very well. What I can be the best at."

What he achieved with "The Courage to Care," believes Gardner, was giving a documentary a nondocumentary feel. He achieved that by shooting his subjects in rooms on sound stages. And for the scenes of their homelands, he used extreme telephoto lenses.

"Did you see the film?" he asked. "Did you feel its leap across time? Sometimes, when you see that, the person's face now and then, you get an eerie feeling from the movie."

Funded by the New York-based Mutual of America, the concept for the film came from Sister Carol Rittner, a scholar and college professor. The sister spent a year developing and planning a conference held in Washington in 1984. It was at this gathering, titled "Faith in Human Kind," that Gardner filmed the memoirs of a dozen participants. Eventually, the dozen participants were pared down to five. The project later took Gardner to Europe. The result is a tale of five heroic rescuers, with narration by Holocaust author and historian (and Auschwitz survivor) Elie Wiesel.