In the dynamic landscape of Hollywood, where storytelling prowess is tested and artistic resilience prevails, Kelli McNeil stands as a beacon of inspiration for aspiring filmmakers. Her journey, marked by triumphs and challenges, unfolds from the initial screenwriting victory with “Baltimore School of Charm” to the highly anticipated unveiling of “DARUMA” at the 2024 Slamdance Film Festival.

McNeil’s foray into the cinematic realm began in 2015, concurrent with the acquisition of her children’s book, “SLEEPY TOES,” by Scholastic. Seeking to delve deeper into the art of storytelling, McNeil enrolled in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where she honed her craft under the guidance of esteemed instructors. It was during this transformative period that she birthed “Baltimore School of Charm,” a narrative feature that not only won the 2017 UCLA Extension Screenplay Competition but also secured her first agency signing, propelling her into the echelons of the industry.

However, McNeil’s journey was far from linear. In a revelatory moment, she shared that the initial claim of “Baltimore School of Charm” being showcased at the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival was inaccurate. Instead, the script’s triumph opened doors, laying the groundwork for her latest project, “DARUMA,” an exploration into the intricate world of filmmaking.

Kelli McNeil

“DARUMA” emerges as a poignant narrative, now an official selection at the 2024 Slamdance Film Festival. The film transcends traditional disability storytelling, drawing support from influential figures like Peter Farrelly, who, captivated by its uniqueness, signed on as an executive producer. McNeil, as the writer/producer of “DARUMA,” took on the multifaceted role of shaping this story into a powerful visual experience.

McNeil’s wealth of experience extends beyond the creative realm. Drawing from her background in marketing and PR, she strategically approached film festivals, securing coverage, sponsors, and meaningful partnerships for “DARUMA.” This expertise played a crucial role in driving the film’s success and elevating its reach.

One of the defining aspects of “DARUMA” is its commitment to authentic representation. The lead actor, Tobias Forrest, a C-4 quadriplegic, adds depth to the narrative, bringing authenticity to the character. Forrest’s journey, from a Christopher Reeve Best Actor scholarship recipient to winning the Best Acting Award at the Media Access Awards, encapsulates the film’s profound impact on both the cast and the audience.

Reflecting on her filmmaking evolution, McNeil acknowledges the transformative power of continual self-challenge and growth. From the initial cringe-worthy scripts to the satisfaction of a completed film, her journey underscores the importance of finding a distinct voice in the world of storytelling—a voice that has now matured and resonates with depth and authenticity.

Collaboration emerges as a recurring theme in McNeil’s narrative. Adjustments during the casting of “DARUMA” to accommodate the lead actor’s capabilities exemplify the collaborative ethos that defined the film’s production. The focus on showcasing what individuals can do, rather than their limitations, becomes a testament to the power of inclusivity in storytelling.

As “DARUMA” prepares to grace the screens at Slamdance 2024, McNeil’s story becomes a beacon of inspiration for aspiring filmmakers. Her sage advice resonates, emphasizing the need for resilience, self-determination, and a proactive approach to creating opportunities in an industry where waiting for validation is seldom an option.

Image from DARUMA, running at 2024 Slamdance.

Looking forward, McNeil envisions a continuation of her collaborative journey with her husband, Alexander Yellen. Their commitment to meaningful storytelling remains unwavering, and with multiple projects in development, they are poised to explore new narratives and genres, further solidifying their imprint on the cinematic landscape.

In a world where the filmmaking process demands both sweat and creativity, Kelli McNeil stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of a filmmaker on the rise. As the curtain rises on “DARUMA” at Slamdance 2024, audiences can anticipate not only a captivating cinematic experience but also a celebration of the relentless passion, perseverance, and unwavering belief in the magic of storytelling that defines Kelli McNeil’s cinematic odyssey. Her journey, with its intricacies and triumphs, adds a compelling chapter to the ever-evolving narrative of Hollywood’s creative pioneers.

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