Fun With Safety

A government filmmaker nurtures his comic side.

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Snow Dogs
Fasten your seat belt: Sheldon Gleisser's behind the lens.
Fasten your seat belt: Sheldon Gleisser's behind the lens.
Being a hotshot Hollywood director has its plusses, none of which include the satisfaction of knowing you've made the world a safer place for tractors.

This is small consolation for Sheldon Gleisser, the visionary responsible for the gripping agricultural drama Sharing the Road With Farm Vehicles, the impossibly sexy Handling Hazardous Mail, and the spellbinding Talk to Your Kids About Drunk Driving.

Okay, maybe "accessible" and "useful" would be more appropriate descriptors for Gleisser's 17-year oeuvre with the Ohio Department of Public Safety, but hey, you gotta dress it up for the reviewers.

A director of safety and instructional films, Gleisser is the man the state highway patrol calls when it needs someone to direct a cautionary tale about picking up hitchhikers. His clever, straightforward public-safety pictures have made him the darling of driver's-ed teachers and local law enforcement.

In a more artistic vein, his short, independent comedies have served as popcorn in between deeply moving cinematic explorations of the human condition at the Ohio Independent Film Festival and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus.

"He's a trip to work with," says Robert Flanagan, a creative writing professor who's played the bearded figure of authority in many of Gleisser's films in both genres. "He'll call me up and say, 'Hey, Bob, I just have kind of a half-assed idea for a script,' to which I'll respond, 'I'm not surprised.'"

A big, loose-limbed guy with mad-scientist hair, Gleisser graduated from Ohio State's film school with dreams of making mega-budget movies. "I thought I would get noticed here and then head out [to L.A.]," says the Cleveland Heights native, who's 42. "It never happened. Which is not to say that it won't, but I'm getting a little long in the tooth."

When he took the public-safety gig, the department was best known for its blood-and-guts driver-training flicks, including avert-your-eyes 1960s classics like Highways of Agony and Mechanized Death. "One of the first things people say to me when we meet is 'Oh, you work for the Department of Public Safety? You made those gory films I made fun of in high school?'"

But he was more interested in entertainment value than body count, creating a superhero called Buckleman to save the citizens of Buckeye City from an archvillain called the Heckler in a seat-belt-safety film. To make road rage look ridiculous and draw parallels to face-to-face communication, he's depicted movie theater patrons cutting each other off and honking at each other while standing in line at the box office.

His early career in filmmaking had some false starts, including Heritage of Doubt, a documentary about the conspiracy behind the assassination of Lincoln. Made for extra credit during his days at Brush High School, "It was horrendous," he says. Incongruent with the 1800s, "There were electric clocks all over the place, airplanes flying by, and high-tension wires."

His brother played Lincoln. "We kind of built up his cheekbones to make him look more like Lincoln. The more we shot, the more his cheekbones were sliding down. So at the end, it looks like he's got these two biscuits on the bottom of his face."

In college, he was further hindered by film stock that came from a friend who had a weekend job shooting Ohio State football games. The friend forgot to mention that the stock was specially made to bring out the scarlet and gray in the team uniforms.

"One of my characters is wearing a red shirt, and it's like a RED shirt," Gleisser recalls. "We got the footage back, and we're like 'Man, that's so much redder than I remembered.'"

He finally found his artistic voice in Mime Legend, a Night of the Living Dead spoof in which everyone in the world turns into a mime except for one guy. He then went on to shoot Rocky VI, a short about the Italian Stallion returning for one last fight with the only opponent he has left after all the sequels -- the devil. (Luckily, he's coached by the Pope, who gets him into shape for the showdown by fashioning his rosary into a jump rope.)

Right now, he's spending his weekends preparing to shoot a comedy about a dysfunctional family trying to stay together in the aftermath of a giant termite invasion. When it's finished, it will probably get a screening at the Ohio Independent Film Festival.

"We love Sheldon," says Bernadette Gilotta, co-director of the OIFF. "Two years ago, we showed six of his shorts as a prefeature. But I think his stuff works better scattered around. Otherwise, you feel like you're at a comedy club."

The long hours Gleisser spends crisscrossing the state with his co-worker, Jeff Watt, really lend themselves to slaphappy brainstorming sessions. It was on one of those road trips that Gleisser got the idea for his madcap religious comedy, Moses: The Legend Continues.

Frozen for centuries in a block of ice, the biblical hero thaws out in modern-day America, which turns out to be a far cry from the Promised Land. Landscapers get really mad at him when he burns their bushes; with a wave of his staff, he parts rush-hour traffic so he can cross the street.

"For some reason, we were thinking about Hercules, how many movies they'd made about Hercules, and then we thought, how come they haven't made any movies about Moses?" Gleisser says. "Except for The Ten Commandments -- that's all he has. So we just thought well, what if he came into the 20th century?"

The duo just wrapped up a multicity screening tour of a deputy registrar training film, which earned favorable reviews from deputy registrars around the state, even though it set Gleisser snoring in the projection room. When you're the bad boy of training videos, you nap when you can.

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