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Aerial View of the Dowagiac Campus

SMC's connection to ‘Wolf of Wall Street’

1996 Dowagiac graduate Aaron Heeter

An homage to Dowagiac zips by on the stock ticker at the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” courtesy of Southwestern Michigan College’s former technical director.

In 2012-13, 1996 Dowagiac Union High School graduate Aaron Heeter worked as a set decoration production assistant on the film, described as the finale of a money-chasing trilogy with “Goodfellas” (1990) and “Casino” (1995).

The director’s fifth collaboration with actor Leonardo DiCaprio explores excess through Jordan Belfort’s memoir of 22 months in federal prison for market manipulation.
It also stars Oscar-nominated Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey.

DiCaprio plays the founder of Long Island’s infamous brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont with an exorbitant lifestyle.

An “Easter egg” is an inside joke or hidden message.

“The Simpsons do it a lot,” Heeter said. “Stocks needed to be cleared, so I had to go to the library with dates scenes take place, look at actual closing prices and save them into a file downloaded into the ticker.”

While home for Christmas from Chicago, Heeter saw the finished film at Celebration Cinema in Benton Harbor.

“It’s like eight seconds in. They do a commercial for Stratton Oakmont with a lion walking through the office. As it pans up, you see the stock ticker moving and it’s right there. It was exciting for me,” said Heeter, roughly approximating the spelling of his hometown with symbols for Dow Chemical, the former Washington Mutual and Jakks Pacific toy company.
“They kept their cards pretty close to the chest because they didn’t want the script getting out,” he said. “Normally, they send out dailies, which are stills we use in the office as reference. But they did none of that. The thing I found most interesting were the differences between the last version of the script and what happened in post-production based on editing to better tell the story.”

Whether a movie or a play, Heeter avoids reading anything in advance.

“You have a seed planted, whether it’s a seed that will grow or not,” he said. “Watching the movie was interesting, but I wasn’t really paying attention to the plot. I was looking at the background” set decorators created.

“Specifically,” Heeter said, “my job was clearance coordinator. I had to know every piece of artwork or brand and make a reference log to share with the film’s clearance person. There were probably 300 pieces of artwork.

“We had to rent 300 steel desks for the big Stratton Oakmont office. We used Dowagiac Commercial Press for sales packets on all the desks — 30,000 pieces of paper around the time of Hurricane Sandy. Each department has a shop. Ours was in Queens. I like movies (compared to TV) because you can plan better” with longer lead times.

“Doing 100 and something shows a year, you feel like you’re just playing keep the ball in the air unless it’s a big holiday show planned eight weeks out. We get crazy requests, like on a Wednesday at 3 o’clock, ‘For tomorrow we have a guy bringing a pig, so build a farm set.’

“It’s tricky because I think I prefer film, but there’s been more work in television. I like the entertainment industry because it changes so often,” though it may not seem like it as technical director for more than 600 Chicago performances of the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” or stage managing the musical “Wicked.”

Since August, the former Oprah Winfrey employee has been working a two-year stint on “The Steve Harvey Morning Show.”

Heeter also worked on the “Hostages” pilot and April’s Cameron Diaz revenge comedy “The Other Woman,” also starring Kate Upton and Nicki Minaj, directed by Nick Cassavetes.
Heeter walked around campus the day after Christmas to see how SMC changed in the decade since he started filling in for Lincoln Clark as technical director when Maryanne Arena directed theatre.

He played Jack in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” at SMC.

“The amount of things SMC did made me a better manager,” Heeter said. “I recall something like 65 events my last year here,” between the college’s own musical and community dance recitals.

“When I came here, it was something to do” more than a career path. “I excelled at it, but it was definitely (Arena). She pushed for something better. I had worked as a hardware manager at Menard’s and hated it.”

Coming out of high school, he saw himself studying nursing.

Heeter was with Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago for two years, 2003-2005, the same period he studied theater design and lighting at Columbia College.

Through a Steppenwolf co-worker, he helped Harpo install a new set, which led to working for Oprah from 2005-11.

His mother, Debbie, attended Oprah’s May 25 United Center finale.

Working in Harpo’s (Oprah backward) production design department, to recreate Mary Tyler Moore’s Minneapolis apartment, Heeter looked homeward, borrowing a Round Oak stove from the SMC museum collection.

Between paying dues at SMC and Beckwith Theatre, “Work I did there gave me a distinct advantage over people coming right out of college,” he has said. “I’ve always been kind of successful at setting a goal, even if I didn’t know the direct path to get there.”