The apartment in What Happened Was…

This is a companion piece to my latest Present Tense column. I wanted to get even more into the apartment and its decor – Daniel Ouellette’s was production designer and Andras Kanegson did the set decoration. The apartment is part of why this film has had such a hold on me ever since I first saw it in 1994.

I’ll pull out the details that intrigue me. The thing is: the more I look at this apartment, the less I understand it. The more I squint at background details, the more questions I have.

What we know, from the script: Jackie has lived there for 5 years. She mentions it not being in the best neighborhood, so I wonder if it’s a converted warehouse-loft in what used to be a more desolate Tribeca area, or Soho, or the East Village. We’re talking early 90s. There’s a fritzing flourescent light in the hallway and Jackie mentions that “they” won’t fix it. So … this isn’t a high-end building with attentive landlords. She also says that even though she’s lived there 5 years, she’s never spoken to anyone else in the building.

There are gaps in all of this information, gaps where you can project meaning, make up your own stories about Jackie – in the same way you look at an Edward Hopper, his lonely nighthawks, and make up stories about who they are, what they’re waiting for, what just happened, what’s going to happen.

Jackie grew up in Long Island, and mentions having lived in The Bronx as well as Queens (“I moved around a lot”) … “making it” into Manhattan is a big deal for this tough girl from a lower income bracket (at least lower than Michael). This is not a realistic apartment for a woman with an executive assistant’s salary, but that just highlights the surreal atmosphere, the sense that this apartment is more a psychological space than a literal location.

This post is for those who plan on seeing the film after reading my piece, or for those who saw the film long ago and want to re-visit, digging into details that might have escaped notice on first watch (because they sure escaped my notice although on some level all of this was working on me). As I wrote in the piece, What Happened Was… despite being an award-winner was unavailable to be seen for years, due to the fact that it was never released (to this day) on DVD or Blu-Ray. It was released on VHS – I had a copy that way – but unless you had a VCR you were screwed. The film lived in my memory but it was only via streaming – it’s now on Amazon – that I could really examine this apartment, peering into corners, squinting at the details.

I’m as fascinated by the apartment as I am by the two characters. I have questions about everything. None of these questions can be satisfactorily answered. But you know that Noonan and his team know the answers. You know that Karen Sillas knows why Jackie has what she has on the walls, why her apartment is the way it is. Every object is there for a reason.


Jackie’s alarm clock: the little train goes around as the alarm sounds. Glass of wine from last night next to the clock.

The main area (there are no walls. It’s all one big space). That’s a fold-out couch where Jackie sleeps. She pulls out the book she’s written from underneath the coffee table, saying she keeps her stuff under there “because of my dreams.” This is never explained.

The eating area. Notice the curtains appear to be a light blue. It will be important later.

This shot looks out one of the windows of her apartment. When Jackie enters the apartment, behind the camera, her reflection in the window makes it seem like she’s out there in the night, stepping out of a door in the shadows on the city roof. This is not kitchen-sink realism.

The pink cake box on the counter. The photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background. Blue and pink color scheme as I mentioned. Boy/Girl. MLK is an intriguing detail. It’s one of two things she’s hung on the wall.

Jackie has set up a little curtained alcove in the corner, an ad hoc dressing room.

Across the way, out the windows, you can see into other people’s apartments/offices. Strange things are happening. You have to make the meanings for yourself. Noonan keeps bringing us back to what’s going on “over there” in ways that feel increasingly hallucinatory.

And here is the second thing she’s hung on her wall. Is it somehow connected to the white china cat she is seen clutching in the opening shot, while she sleeps? Why does she sleep clutching the china cat? As she races around getting ready for the date, she drops the china cat, and it shatters on the floor. She then puts the pieces into the fish tank, because he’s at the door, the date is about to start. So is all of this connected – thematically – to the choice to have her have a Cats poster on her wall? Please do me the favor of recognizing a rhetorical question. This is what I mean when I say the film has all of these intriguing GAPS, and much of it emanates out from the set, and its details, surrounding the two characters with strangeness.

Like I said, she tosses the broken china cat into the fish tank. Noonan occasionally goes back to this image during the ensuing date.

Chandelier turned on, table set, candles lit and notice … now the curtains are pink.

The only thing even vaguely personal in the main area are some tiny black-and-white framed photos on the window ledge. For all I know they could be vintage photos she picked up in a second-hand shop and not personal items at all.

The main room again, only now we can see one whole wall is what looks like thick blue curtains. Turns out they are completely see-through, which we’ll learn a bit later. The whole apartment is an optical illusion in a way, or a space which presents itself as true, only to be revealed later that what you see is not what you get. She sleeps on a folding couch in the middle of a room – unfolding it and folding it back up every day – just so she can keep that space behind the curtain for one-purpose-only. AND, she doesn’t let that space behind the curtain spill over into the rest of the apartment. She has completely compartmentalized it.

Finally, we go behind the curtain into her red room. (Please notice that now that wall of blue curtains is pink. This all may be a trick of lighting – they may very well be the same curtains as before – irrelevant: what I’m talking about is how this space – so distinct – is in a state of constant flux. Even the colors change.) Now we’re in a totally red room where all this crazy shit is going on. Stuff on the floor, stuff piled up (the rest of the apartment is pristine to the point of being alienating) – AND, as this scene goes on, it’s like the space expands – we suddenly see aspects of it, corners, hidey-holes – you don’t see at first view.

LOOK at this space.

The “room” gets weirder and weirder the deeper you go into it.

He looks like he’s having a wonderful time on this date, doesn’t he?

The glowing kitchen. The layout of the space. I wish I could get a look at what pictures she’s put onto the fridge with magnets. Art prints? I could see her going to MoMA on a weekend, wandering around and buying some magnets in the museum store. It’s hard to picture her having personal photos. Maybe they’re old pictures of her grandparents at Coney Island or something, something she found in a box in an attic somewhere.

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