Good Call

October 19th, 2010 by Max Allan Collins

Last week a guy died who most of you never heard of. His name was Steve Henke. He was my age – 62 – and he lived most of his life in Iowa City, Iowa, where he worked for many years at the University of Iowa video production center, but also freelanced in various capacities in the film business for probably forty years. Lately he lived out west, but he’s coming home to Iowa soon.

Steve was a grizzled veteran of the movie wars – he struck me as either a benign biker or a dangerous hippie…I was never quite sure which. He was introduced to me by Phil Dingeldein, my collaborator (Director of Photography/Editor) on most of my movie projects. Back in 1994, Phil recommended I hire Steve to be gaffer on MOMMY, my first indie movie. Ultimately the credit Steve took (and earned) was Lighting Design.

Steve with Patty
Steve Henke and star Patty McCormack on the set of MOMMY (1994)

On MOMMY, as writer and executive producer, when things turned disastrous and I wound up having to take over the director’s chair two weeks into production, I already knew the two indispensable people were Dingeldein and Henke. I scheduled a meeting with them, and revealed I intended to become director – knowing that without their okay, and their support, I wouldn’t have a chance. They backed me, and supported me, and taught me. Between Phil and Steve, there wasn’t much about film and video production that they didn’t know or hadn’t experienced. What I know – and frankly I know quite a bit – I learned from those two. (Them and my actor pal Mike Cornelison, who had also encouraged me to believe in my ability to direct the picture).

Phil Dingeldein is genial guy – everybody loves Phil. Steve Henke was cantankerous by nature and design – a shop foreman who ruled his blue-collar minions through fear and respect. When MOMMY’S DAY came along, I tapped Henke to be my First Assistant Director as well as Lighting Designer (we wore multiple hats on our low-budget projects). He and I did the bulk of the pre-production work and had broken down every single scene, down to every single set-up, before we stepped on set. My God, but I learned so much from this rough-edged, belligerent, generous, sweet man.

Steve with MAC
Henke and Collins on set of REAL TIME: SIEGE AT LUCAS STREET MARKET (2000)

When Henke – again my First Assistant Director – introduced himself to the crew and cast on the first day of REAL TIME: SIEGE AT LUCAS STREET MARKET, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am your worst nightmare.” Also a director’s dream First A.D. His bad cop presence allowed me to become a much-beloved good cop. Mainly what Steve did was move things along faster. And faster.

On the other hand, one of the best known stories about Henke came from the time he spent seemingly hours trying to light a set to his satisfaction on MOMMY’S DAY – specifically, a bedroom decorated with ironic clown dolls and clown paintings. One clown doll seated in a window had drawn his obsessive attention. “Steve!” Dingeldein cried out. “Let’s go! You’re lighting the clown!” This was followed by much laughter, and Henke’s grumpy capitulation. From that day henceforth on my sets, taking too much time has become known as “lighting the clown.”

Steve Henke was also my producer and editor on the documentary CAVEMAN: V.T. HAMLIN & ALLEY OOP. He helped me get the project taken on by the University of Iowa video center, and it was his last project there before retiring. He is essentially the co-author (along with producer Mark Lambert) of that documentary, which may represent my best piece of filmmaking. Henke went with me to the San Diego Comic Con to shoot famous cartoonists like Will Eisner, Trina Robbins and Stan Sakai, and he loved rubbing shoulders with talent like that, and inhaled the pageantry and excess of that event.

Henke was an original. He gave me an ultimatum once that if I didn’t ban the producer from the set, he would quit – I banned the producer. On that same production, I bailed Henke out of jail when it turned out he was driving on a long-expired license. I like to think we were good friends. Still, he was merciless in his criticism of my work – he once said, “Collins will write something wonderfully nasty then spoil it with a sentimental wind-up, and there’s not a fucking thing you can do about it” – but also extravagant in his praise. When I did my edit of CAVEMAN on my home video recorder, and he told me I was always within a frame – if you know film and video editing, you know a frame is less than an eyeblink – from the perfect edit point. I treasure that remark.

I have few regrets in life. Maybe three regrets. Two are that I never saw the Beatles or Bobby Darin perform live. The other is that I didn’t get to do another film project with Steve. I haven’t captured him here – that’s almost impossible. But I’ll wind up with my favorite story about him, which I’ve shared with many people over the years.

For MOMMY’S DAY, in pre-production, Steve and I designed a shot that would have a camera on a jib sweep down the table in a prison’s visitor’s room and wind up as a close-up of our star, Patty McCormack. We both were pleased with that, but when the day came, we were up against the clock where our child actress Rachel Lemieux was concerned (she could only work a specified number of hours per day, by SAG rules). So I went to my First A.D. and said, “Scrap the jib shot. Too elaborate. We’re running behind.”

He looked at me with his twin evil-eye gaze and put his nose a quarter inch from mine. “Are you telling me we’re scrapping the jib shot?”

“We’re scrapping the jib shot.”

“You’re sure you want to do that? It’s the best shot in the damn picture!”

“I’m sure.”

He threw his baseball cap on the floor. “Speaking as your creative collaborator, I want to register my extreme disappointment in your judgment.” He picked his hat off the floor, snugged it in place, and said, “Speaking as your First A.D. – good call!”

And he rushed off to the light the next set-up.

Rest in peace, old friend. Wish I could bail you out of this one.


Steve at Premiere
Henke on the red carpet at the world premiere of REAL TIME at the Capitol Theater in Davenport, Iowa

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5 Responses to “Good Call”

  1. Mike Cornelison says:

    Somewhere up in heaven they’re running for their lives. But God damn it, they’re well lit and ahead of schedule!
    Adios, amigo.

  2. Mike said it better than I did in lots fewer words. Mike starred in three indie movies that Henke worked on with me, and was narrator on CAVEMAN, which Henke edited and shot.

  3. Craig Clarke says:

    That is a great story. I’m sorry for your loss. It looks like both you gents (and independent filmmaking in general) have lost a good friend and collaborator.

    I suggest that everyone should watch Caveman as a form of tribute.

  4. LarzTwitt says:

    Steve was my father-law, and I miss him terribly. Today, we are going through a storage unit, sorting through his belongings and so forth. I really connected to this story, as I am an ameture film editor/maker. Steve and I would spend hours talking editing strategies, and as you have experienced, Steve provided a wealth of knowledge. There’s not a single day that goes by that I don’t think abouty father-in-law, and his scruffy voice and fanny pack.

  5. LarzTwitt says:

    Forgive the typos; using an iPhone. :)