Mike Neal grew up on the water. As a kid in Maine he was always outdoors fishing and boating. Many years later he’s still out on the water, only now he works there as a marine coordinator for Georgia-based film and TV productions.
After a peripatetic career as an advisor to armed forces around the world, a dive instructor on cruise ships and a student at the Maine Maritime Academy, he settled in Savannah to run a small marina. He now operates Bull River Cruises, an collection of explorations of coastal Georgia that have become popular with locals and tourists.
Unlike thousands of Georgians who got jobs and new careers when the movie studios came to town, Mike got his start in 2008 in Costa Rica, where he was a contestant/talent on “The Catch,” a one-season reality series about a fishing competition. “I learned a lot during the filming of the show on that job, especially about all the skills needed to make a tv show,” Mike says. “I also recognized the need for greater safety on the water in these productions.”
His next production was “The Town,” starring Ben Affleck, which helped him gain valuable experience on working in the film industry. His aspiration was to become a film’s marine coordinator, a job that included scouting locations, working on pre-production planning, and recruiting and managing crews on the water during production.
Mike’s big break came on the production of “Savannah,” featuring Jim Caviezel, who starred in the TV series “Person of Interest,” and Chitwetel Ejiofor, an Academy Award nominee for “12 Years a Slave.” Mike had eight men on his crew for that film, a step up on his management ladder. More importantly, he was coached on the job of marine coordinator by an experienced assistant director.
Filming a scene on the water involves the close coordination of at least three vessels: A camera boat, its supply boats and a “picture” boat being filmed. Mike himself has a fleet of boats, kayaks and paddleboards, and can charter other boats as needed.
Currently waiting release is “Peanut Butter Falcon,” featuring Dakota Johnson, Shia LaBeouf and Bruce Dern. The film tells the story of a child with Down Syndrome in a Huck-Finn-like adventure. “We filmed off Georgia’s barrier islands, marshes and black-water creeks,” Mike says. “We didn’t have to create many sets; the natural splendor of the Georgia coastline was our theater.”
Mike is also in production in Savannah for “Gemini Man,” with Will Smith.
The impact of film-making on his excursion business has been significant. Film and TV work now accounts for 50 percent of his business, and that share is growing. Mike attributes that growth to the Georgia tax credit for film production.
“It’s produced thousands of jobs and built up existing businesses all over the state— everybody benefits,” Mike says. “Georgians and the state itself are getting back far more revenue than the tax break gives up. It’s a great deal for everyone.”
When he looks at his own bottom line, Mike sees the impact of film and TV on his family, too. “It allows my family to make decisions we didn’t know would be available to us.”