Big Picture: Dylan Neal in high gear

He doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, so it was surprising to learn one apparent reason why Dylan Neal has managed to successfully carve out his showbiz career.

Like Harrison Ford, who once paid the bills through carpentry, and Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman, Neal has a woodworking background.

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“I’ve been a furniture builder for 20 years. There’s a bunch of us who do this,” said the actor, writer and producer on the Victoria set of The Gourmet Detective: Death Al Dente recently.

Neal once worked as a professional cabinet maker in Vancouver, where during the Hollywood writers’ strike he recreated country period furniture for Farmhouse Collections Ltd.

The precision, discipline and care the Ontario-born actor has put into creating replica furniture stood him in good stead for a career that in many ways requires similar qualities.

One big difference between woodwork and the high-stakes world of production is the amount of time you can devote to your labour of love, however.

“We cannot afford to be behind,” said Neal, 46, between mouthfuls of a quick lunch in Times Colonist office space masquerading as the San Francisco Police Department.

In the third instalment of the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries series he co-wrote with his wife, TV writer Becky Southwell, Neal returns as Henry Ross, the charming culinary whiz who solves crimes with strong-willed partner Maggie Price (Brooke Burns).

The actor, whose credits includes roles in Sabrina: The Teenage Witch, Blood Ties and Arrow, is also executive producer of the film.

In the third movie, airing later this year, his title character investigates the mysterious death of an iconic Italian restaurant’s colourful owner.

“Television is a machine that has to be fed, and it’s a very fast schedule, so if you’re doing [a TV series], especially for a broadcast network where you’re doing 22 or 24 episodes, you only have seven or eight days, maybe nine, to shoot an episode,” said Neal, no stranger to this world.

“The next script has to be prepping while you’re shooting the current episode and you need a fairly large room of writers cranking out scripts so you don’t stall production. It’s costly, so it has to be a well-oiled machine.”

Typically, a lower-budget TV movie takes 15 days to shoot, with three weeks of prep to scout locations and get all departments up to speed, he adds.

“Once you start shooting, it’s a sprint, which is why not all directors can work in TV,” he said. “A lot of famous film directors, when they dip their toes into TV, often get stuck. They just don’t think at the speed television operates at. With TV, you have to be able to tell a story very quickly. You don’t have time for grand, visual storytelling, which is the hallmark of film.”

That’s why producer Terry Ingram, the veteran Canadian TV director who cut his teeth on the 1980s series Night Heat, was brought on board.

“He’s extremely experienced and we know he can handle our condensed shooting schedule. You’ve got to make your day on these little budgets.”

After coming here in 2012 to shoot Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove for Hallmark with Andie MacDowell, Neal was so impressed with local crews and locations he vowed to return.

“We’re creating this world in San Francisco and got so much production value here we could never have gotten in Vancouver,” said Neal, also lured by favourable tax credits.

Other locations his tightlyknit crews have used in The Gourmet Detective franchise so far include Esquimalt’s English Inn, Chinatown and private homes.

“The network’s really pleased and this cast and crew has been very special to me,” he said. “We’re not curing cancer here. My motto is work hard, play hard and have a good experience at the end of the day.”

The father of two has been doing that, toggling between Victoria and Vancouver, where he flew mid-production to film his scenes as Anastasia Steele’s stepfather, Bob Adams, for the Fifty Shades of Grey sequel.

“I really should be in L.A. auditioning,” said Neal, who put some auditions on tape at midnight the night before and then learned his lines for the final day’s shooting.

He grins when told how relaxed he seems during the final countdown to the production wrap.

“You didn’t see the development process when I ran around like a chicken with its head chopped off,” said Neal, who sold his first pilot in 2003 but hasn’t doubled up as executive producer and writer for a while.

“Dealing with development at a network is still something I’m learning to navigate gracefully,” he said. “It’s been a learning curve.”

He said he’s grateful having been able to work for the past three years with Hallmark executives he met through Cedar Cove, since “they took me into their fold.”

He momentarily sounds like Donald Trump as he expresses gratitude for their friendship and accessibility.

“They’re wonderful people, good people,” he said.

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