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Rob McNeil of Normal poses with Zoe Mancuso, another screenwriter whose work was selected for the 2018 Beverly Hills Film Festival, during the event in April. McNeil, 25, is a State Farm claims employee whose script "No Return" also won the Grand Jury Prize in 2017's Cannes Screenplay Contest.

NORMAL — By day, Rob McNeil is a mild-mannered 25-year-old insurance claims employee who still lives with his parents to save money to pay student loans.

But by night, he's creating his own worlds — and winning awards for it.

"I've written six features so far, that one the most prominent," said McNeil of "No Return," a film script that won him the Grand Jury Prize in 2017's Cannes Screenplay Contest. "I recently finished a western, which I'm pretty thrilled about. ... I'm always working on something different."

McNeil is a Normal native and resident, but hopes to move west to pursue screenwriting full time, a passion he picked up in his years working at State Farm since college.

"I started out writing novels and short stories, but my true passion is film, so I transcribed this novel I was writing into a screenplay," said McNeil, a Central Catholic High School grad with a degree in communications from Augustana College.

"It was all self-taught, reading other scripts and looking at online forums like the subreddit for screenwriting. That's where I learned to do the formatting."

He estimates he spent three months writing "No Return," a feature-length "detective mystery crime drama neo-noir" story inspired by Gillian Flynn's novel "Gone Girl," the film adaptation of that book and the HBO series "True Detective."

McNeil said he was especially influenced by "L.A. Confidential," the 1997 winner of the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. 

"If all three of those made a love child, that's what my script is," he said with a laugh.

McNeil decided the script was good enough to enter into some contests, including Cannes, which is not affiliated with the Cannes Film Festival, and the Beverly Hills Film Festival, which also selected "No Return." He attended the latter in April.

"They were showing a bunch of short films, features, documentaries and documentary shorts, and it was a very humbling experience because there's a lot of very talented people out there," he said. "All of theirs are on the screen, and mine at this point is just words on the page."

McNeil said the award selections haven't changed things for him so far in terms of getting jobs or an agent — in fact, an agent who read "No Return" told him "she didn't feel it was compelling enough to read past the first act" — but he noted taste is subjective and said he'll list the prizes on his resume.

"Clearly someone liked it," McNeil said. "It's a really hard industry to break into, and it's all about different tastes."

McNeil said though he's still early in his screenwriting career, he hopes his success will inspire others to pursue their dreams.

"Your idea of great may not be most people's idea. ... It's better to do what you want to see instead of what you think the market wants," he said. "You have to throw self-doubt out the window and put yourself out there."

Contact Derek Beigh at (309) 820-3234. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_beigh


Normal and McLean County Reporter

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