NEW YORK -- When the lights came up after the screening of "The Big Easy" at the United States Film Festival in last January Utah, the man sitting in front of director Jim McBride turned to tell him how much he liked the movie.

The man happened to be David Puttnam, head of Columbia Pictures. "I want to buy it," he said.

As McBride relates the story during a recent interview here, "My mouth dropped. I said that it may be too late."

A former avant-garde filmmaker who has been working on Hollywood's fringe for the past 15 years, McBride was now being courted by one of the big studios. Puttnam was enchanted by the New Orleans police drama and romance starring Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin.

Columbia acted just in time to buy the distribution rights from a small company, New Century/Vista, which was planning to open the movie in a handful of southern theaters in February, on Friday the 13th. "They had a terrible ad campaign, and I knew it was going to be a disaster," says McBride. Now "The Big Easy" will open nationwide this Friday.

It will be the latest in a spate of recent New Orleans movies, including "Angel Heart," "No Mercy" and "Down by Law." But these have all portrayed the city as a sinister, decadent place. In "The Big Easy," the upbeat spirit of Mardi Gras reigns. The title refers to the city's festive side, typified by Cajun music, zesty food and nonstop partying.

Quaid plays Remy McSwaim, a homicide cop in a unit being investigated for corruption by Anne Osborne, a strait-laced prosecutor played by Ellen Barkin. With her blond hair pulled up in a bun and her eyes hidden by glasses, Osborne is a prototypical repressed beauty who doesn't know how to have fun. But Remy, who draws no boundaries between work and pleasure, tells her, "We have a different way of doin' things down here, darling." Soon enough, the story of murder and corruption takes a back seat to the love story, and a celebration of life in a city nicknamed "the big easy."

McBride shows up for an interview at the plush St. Regis Hotel dressed in a bright green jacket, jeans and sneakers. It is his first visit in nearly two years to New York, where he grew up. The 41-year-old filmmaker is an NYU graduate who was part of the underground film movement that flourished in the '60s. In many ways, he is a forerunner of such directors as Spike Lee ("She's Gotta Have It"), Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger Than Paradise") and Lizzie Borden ("Working Girls"), New York independents whose low-budget movies present a fresh alternative to the Hollywood norm.

McBride's 1968 film, "David Holzman's Diary," blended fiction and documentary techniques to tell the story of a man who films his daily life in order to find the truth, instead losing his girlfriend, camera and tape recorder. In 1970, McBride made "My Girlfriend's Wedding," an hour-long movie that continued this pseudo documentary, autobiographical style as it told the story of a young Englishwoman, living with McBride, who finds a volunteer to marry her so that she can get a green card.

Though McBride is a fiction filmmaker, there has always been a documentary flavor to his work. "My first experiences in filmmaking were as a sound man and editor for documentary films," he says. "I still believe that reality is more interseting than anything you can think up in a movie." Indeed, much of the charm of "The Big Easy" is its authentic New Orleans atmosphere, captured with a documentarian's flair for detail.

But there is another side to McBride's style, a love for pop culture. In 1971, he directed "Glen and Randa," a postapocalyptic science fiction fantasy that made Time's annual Ten Best list. The main character, a teen-ager named Glen, spends his time reading comic books and dreaming of a fantasy city named "Metropolis." Though the movie is filmed in the style of an ethnographic documentary as Glen and his girlfriend wander through the Pacific Northwest, there is an undercurrent of fantasy that crops up in McBride's later movies.

In 1974, McBride made his first mainstream movie, "Hot Times," a low-budget, teen sex comedy about a boy (named Archie, after McBride's interest in comics) who explores the underworld of New York City. McBride flavored the comedy with a home-movie-style depiction of city street life.

"Hot Times" was a turning point for McBride, who moved to Los Angeles after it ws made. "It dawned on me that if I wanted to keep on making movies, I had to go to Hollywood. I supported myself working on projects that never got filmed, but it was better than driving a cab in New York."

After writing the narration for Sam Fuller's "The Big Red One," McBride wrote an adaptation of Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer," set in New Orleans and starring Sam Waterston. It actually began filming, but the financing, from an oil millionaire, fell through and shooting halted.

McBride's first real Hollywood break came with "Breathless," an American remake of Jean-Luc Godard's 1959 French classic. "The idea for the script came out of desperation," says McBride, with a playful grin. "I couldn't come up with my own idea, and I thought, what would Hollywood like?"

McBride sold the script in 1978, but it took five years for the movie to get made. No stars wanted to work with an unknown director, so McBride agreed to let someone else direct. A name director was hired, and Richard Gere was signed to star. But the director went off to make another movie. Gere hired a new director, who also left to make another movie. As a last resort, McBride was brought in.

Critical reaction was, to be charitable, mixed, but some praised "Breathless" for McBride's outlandish, comic-book visual style and the sexual chemistry between Gere and French actress Valerie Kaprisky. And on the strength of "Breathless," McBride received a call in 1985 from producer Stephen Friedman, who is responsible for "The Last Picture Show" and "All of Me," as well as such flops as "Creator," "Touch and Go," "Enemy Mine" and "Morgan Stewart's Coming Home."

"This guy Friedman likes to hire directors that nobody else would hire because he can push them around," says McBride. "He's a frustrated director himself and generally the director doesn't last for the duration of the filming. Even if he does, he gets fired during the editing and Friedman recuts the movie. So I'm sure that's why he hired me. But I outfoxed him. I lasted."

Not only did McBride last, he was able to stamp the project -- "The Big Easy" -- with his personal style. Originally, the movie was a conventional police drama, set in Chicago.

"It was a fairly serious, straightforward melodrama," says McBride. "I told Friedman I wanted to change the setting to New Orleans, and move the love story more to the foreground. It was a challenge to try to invest the script with a little life, a sense of humor, and music."

One thing McBride fleshed out was the script's narrow view of morality.

"It was black and white. It was about a bad guy who is turned by an innocent woman. I felt that he didn't need to be such a bad guy and that she could learn something from him. Despite whatever weaknesses he had, Remy's very engaged with life." Osborne finds herself torn between the charm of "the big easy" and her idealistic sense of law and order.

"It's hard to explain, but there's a kind of sensibility in New Orleans -- it's very un-American," says McBride. "It's much more Mediterranean; it's a world where everything is conducted on a much more personal basis. A lot of it has to do with family. The police department is a family, the city is a family, and abstract ideas of right and wrong or the law have less importance in the grand scheme of things. Huey Long and Earl Long were famous for their corruption, but they did so much for Louisiana. There's a lot more ambiguity than a town like Chicago where it really is straight corruption."

However, one wonders what the New Orleans Police Department thinks about a movie that shows its members engaged in such activities as building a secret fund with hush money from owners of topless bars, stealing drugs, and casually exploiting their status by running red lights and taking free meals at restaurants.

"If you want to make a movie in New Orleans, you get permits and help from the police department. So the day finally came when we had to show them the script. We were very nervous," says McBride, "but they loved it. They asked us how we knew these things, and they told us all kinds of stories." According to McBride, the police befriended Dennis Quaid, who spent a month in the city preparing for his role.

"Dennis drove around with homicide cops every night until 6 in the morning. They got to love him so much they gave him a police car and badge. During production, he'd drive around running red lights with his siren going."

To say the least, morale seemed to run pretty high on the set. "I began my career making independent films, and there was always a sense of wanting to work with a group of friends and people you care about. When I went to Hollywood, this whole idea was frowned upon. But with this movie I was able to do it. The cinematographer was an old friend of mine, a couple of actors were old friends, my wife did the costumes, and there was a kind of family feeling. There was a sense we were doing something worth doing, and we were in this town where it's hard not to have a good time."

This sense of camaraderie also added to the movie's most potent ingredient, Anne and Remy's romance. "Dennis and Ellen are total actors, and they played out their mock love affair all the time. They'd come to dailies and sit together and tell each other how great they were, and the two of them got off on working together. They felt an attraction and acted it out, but it was all for the work."

After filming "The Big Easy," McBride directed an episode of the "Twilight Zone" TV series. Entitled "The Once and Future King," it follows a Presley impersonator who gets transported back in time to the '50s.

As for future plans, McBride has two more New Orleans projects in the works. One is his long-delayed adaptation of "The Moviegoer" and the other is about former governor Earl Long's notorious affair with a stripper. He is also finishing an adaptation with Kit Carson of "Electric Assassin," a series of comic books by Frank Miller.

It seems more likely than ever that McBride will be able to get these projects made. Whether or not "The Big Easy" becomes a hit, he believes his status as a Hollywood outsider has changed: "The fact that David Puttnam liked the movie has made me a viable person in Hollywood for the first time in my life. I've been there 11 years, and it's the first time people are sending me scripts."

David Schwartz is a New York writer