On Friday, this year’s leading holiday tearjerker opens in theaters nationwide, a damp-hanky reflection on the eternal starring Will Smith as an executive turned grief-wracked loner.
But for fans in the Triangle, the most compelling co-star in “Collateral Beauty” – nudging aside Keira Knightley and Kate Winslet – might be a collection of dominoes, a central prop expertly arranged into spirals and pyramids by a 15-year-old kid from Cary.
Over the last five years, Nathan Heck has carefully honed his domino hobby in the family attic, collecting more than 25,000 pieces sorted into plastic bins by color, size and brand. They fill a walk-in closet to eye level.
Nathan’s most elaborate formation took roughly 40 hours to build, a level of obsession that ranks the sophomore from Panther Creek High School among the world’s top domino enthusiasts, a society that requires the inventiveness of a Lego virtuoso and the patience of a monk.
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In April, Nathan got tapped for work as the movie’s assistant domino artist – a two-week job that placed him on the New York set, where he helped coach the former Fresh Prince of Bel Air through proper building technique. No surprise, but Nathan reports Smith to be a nice fellow.
“We had to teach him how to knock them over in the right way,” said Heck. “He caught on really quickly. He did drop a few.”
Toppling rectangular blocks for fun can be traced to Pennsylvania science teacher Robert Speca, who in 1974 scored the first domino-related entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, knocking down 11,111. That record, quaint by modern standards, has since been shattered many times, having shot beyond 300,000 for a single person and 4 million for a team.
YouTube is cluttered with falling domino towers, walls, fields, fallbacks and splitters, some of whom Nathan stumbled across as a bored 10-year-old. The artist who first inspired him, a Canadian known as Flippycat, once constructed a vampire out of dominoes – a formation that toppled once you stabbed the monster through the heart, causing its coffin to collapse.
Nathan began with a humble set of Jenga blocks, soon graduating to a box of wooden dominoes and then the high-quality, dot-free plastic variety sold only in bulk. This variety sold for builders wouldn’t work for a game of Maltese Cross in grandpa’s barbershop, but they’re ideal for crafting 90-degree turns. Before long, he was posting his own YouTube videos and chatting with builders worldwide. In a quick display of his skills that took four hours to construct, Nathan made dominoes climb a spiral staircase.
“He learned patience,” said his mother, Jacqui. “He learned how to handle disappointment and recover from it. He would work for hours and it would fall over. He’d be really disappointed, and then he’d start over.”
In his other life, Nathan plays baseball and enjoys a good Mario game. These side hobbies come in handy considering it’s hard to find a fellow high school kid interested in three straight hours of domino assembly.
On the “Collateral Beauty” set, many of the formations he helped build were glued together to guard against errant elbows. The team of domino artists had to build, rebuild and rebuild to capture multiple shots. Sometimes, set materials were dangling precariously over dominoes that took hours to arrange, and nobody could breathe until the moment they toppled.
“I couldn’t watch,” Nathan’s mother said.
But the payoff shows on the big screen, where even a movie star takes his cues from a teenage boy who practiced in the attic, patiently placing one tile in front of the next.