Tom Noonan Visits with “What Happened Was”

by Elizabeth Colombini

The film “What Happened Was” is the creation of actor Tom Noonan, most famously known for his roles in movies such as “Last Action Hero,” “Robocop 2,” and “The Monster Squad.”

On Nov. 16, the Film Society, the Cinema Studies program, and the Film Conservatory presented the movie in the Choral Hall at SUNY Purchase. The film stars Noonan and co-stars Purchase alumna, Karen Sillas.

Noonan’s film, which was made on a small budget, exemplifies its simplicity with its use of fluorescent lighting and an occasional boom mic in the frame. “I just wanted to make something modest, hopefully artful and true,” explained Noonan, “and try all these little things you can try.”  The movie’s use of props and strange detail also gave the film an almost “Twilight Zone” feel to it. For example, there was a striking yet seemingly out of place picture of Martin Luther King Jr. hanging on a wall in the small apartment. In Jackie’s room there were eerie dolls arranged alongside equally eerie dollhouses. “I thought it was sort of scary,” said Noonan, “and I thought it was all about her childhood.”

In the opening scene we are introduced to Jackie, an executive assistant (Karen Sillas) as she arrives home from work and begins readying the apartment for a dinner date with coworker Michael, (Tom Noonan) who is a paralegal at the firm they both work for. Nervously pacing, she begins lighting candles, and changing out of multiple outfits. She removes a cake out of a pink box and sets it in Tupperware. After a while of anxious preparation, Michael rings the doorbell. From this moment on, we see their relationship, (or lack of) develop into an awkward, nail biting exchange between both characters.

Speaking with a heavy Long Island accent, Jackie uses her wit, plus a bit of liquid courage, to break the ice and try to unravel Michael’s stiff persona.  Michael attempts to tell jokes, falls short, and long silent pauses between the two thickens the tension. They transition from an uncomfortable silence to a frozen scallop dinner that Jackie heats up in the microwave. As they sit across from each other at the dinner table, Jackie continues to make small talk with Michael. After saying something that made him laugh, Michael pulls out a small notebook and begins to take notes. He eventually tells her that he is writing a story about the law firm.  Excited that they might actually have something in common, Jackie explains that she writes children’s stories. However, Jackie’s children stories turn out to be less like a magical fairytale and more comparable to that of a Brothers Grimm story. The movie concludes with Michael admitting he didn’t know he was even on a date and the disastrous revelation that he isn’t really a writer.

According to Noonan, the idea for the movie came after a dinner party with his neighbors. “I wrote 75 percent  of this in three days,” Noonan explained.  Noonan had asked one of his neighbors how her brother was.  She explained that her brother works as a paralegal and that a woman had invited him home for dinner. In the middle of dinner her brother turned to the woman and asked her ‘Is this a date?’  Noonan excused himself from the dinner party and immediately began the process of creating the film. “It’s just that one click happened,” said Noonan, “that changed my whole life having done this movie.”

“What Happened Was” is Noonan’s directorial debut and was released in 1994, the same year it won awards at the Sundance Film Festival and at the Chicago International Film Festival.