It might seem unlikely – if not unbelievable – for a kid from Compton, California, to wind up in the woods of Central Minnesota at Saint John’s University.
But then Keith Sweet II ’19 is all about making the unbelievable believable – especially when it comes to his passion for telling stories through film.
He spent much of his childhood at home watching television, better to stay away from the trouble so easily found outside on the streets of Greater Los Angeles. He watched movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws and Alien, and barely a decade later found himself working as an intern in a production company for J.J. Abrams, who then was directing Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Only weeks before Sweet arrived in Collegeville for his freshman year, his first experience on set came with Harrison Ford (Han Solo), John Boyega (Finn) and Daisy Ridley (Rey) in front of the camera. Subsequent summers included more work in Hollywood – whatever he could find – and even before graduation he worked with Abrams on a Netflix feature (The Cloverfield Paradox). Within two years of being back in L.A. full-time, Sweet became the youngest staff writer in the history of the Star Trek media franchise for his contribution to Star Trek: Prodigy, an animated action/adventure TV series.
Of course, like any good story, there must be conflict to leverage the drama. For Sweet, that meant a subsequent period of unemployment, a failed non-industry job, and then – just after he’d finally seemed to break back in as writer of a series bought by Amazon MGM Studios – a Writers Guild of America strike that dragged on for nearly five months in the middle of 2023. Before it was over, he’d lost his apartment and health insurance and, at 26, was forced to move home with his family.
Fortunately, the strike ended in late September. Sweet is working feverishly on the first script for Don’t Come to L.A., about a low-level gangster assigned to protect a popular rap singer. And, just last month, he learned Prodigy was picked up for a second season in 2024.
“It’s not as weird as it sounds on paper,” Sweet said.
He was talking about how he came to Saint John’s in the first place, but the words are applicable to his experience for almost the past decade since he was at Verbum Dei Jesuit High School. It was there Sweet joined a film club and participated in a mentorship program founded by Trevor Engelson, then early in a production career that now includes almost two dozen titles – including the FX crime drama Snowfall.
“My high school has a really great partnership with Saint John’s, and people from admissions came out and told us about it and I got the chance to fly out and see for myself,” Sweet said. “My college visit was one of the first times I’d ever left L.A., let alone the state – other than going to Vegas. It was the first time I’d ever got on a plane. But I saw what college was like there and I fell in love with it. I liked the isolation. Coming from a big city, Collegeville and St. Joseph and St. Cloud were all just perfect for me for a few years.
“Saint John’s gave me the space to breathe,” he added. “In Compton, there are so many things you have to be aware of at all times – where you are, how you’re acting, what colors you might be wearing – and in Minnesota I finally felt like I could be a kid. I learned a lot about myself and about life there.”
Keith Sweet II ’19 (left) meets with rapper/actor YG and producer Damani Johnson in Los Angeles. YG and Johnson devised the concept for a TV show, Don’t Come to L.A., that was bought by Amazon MGM Studios earlier this year. Sweet has been hired to write the screenplay and, now that strikes involving writers and actors in Hollywood have been settled, he’s working fast to get the scripts ready for their debut in 2024.
Saint John’s helped teach him what to make films about
What’s more, Engelson and Abrams both endorsed Sweet’s decision to attend Saint John’s.
Engelson, who was once married to Meghan Markle, hired Sweet as an intern with Underground, a Beverly Hills based management/production company, mentored him through college and later tipped him off about a job that led to Prodigy. Engelson continues to serve as Sweet’s manager and representative, along with United Talent Agency.
And in 2015, Sweet got perhaps his big break, working for Bad Robot, Abrams’ production company. Sweet said it was a safe haven that fostered his creativity as a young, Black kid, gave him purpose and a place to be. It’s where he discovered film was what he wants to do with his career, and one day he asked Abrams for advice about choosing a film school for college.
“He said, ‘Don’t go to school to learn how to make films. Go to school to learn what to make films about – the people, the interactions,’” Sweet recalled. “That’s the main reason I went to Saint John’s.”
Sweet designed his own degree, molding together what art, communication, English, theater and business classes might benefit his career. In addition, of course, to anything to do with film, he took Shakespeare and other classics to burnish his writing, and studied accounting since successful finance is imperative to any industry professional. He discovered champions among the faculty, like professor Simon-Hoa Phan, OSB, who always fostered Sweet’s creativity, and found inspiration both on the campus at SJU and the College of Saint Benedict.
“I remember me and my crew of friends, we used to go around filming things,” said Sweet, who created a web series of short films about Collegeville and the “weirdness” of being a Black person in Central Minnesota. “One time, we were shooting something late at night near the basketball courts at Saint John’s. My friend was running, and I was hanging out of a car with a camera in the snow and cold as my other friend was driving. Life Safety came and said they’d had reports of somebody hanging out of a car window. ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Oh, we’re just doing something for a class.’ ‘Oh! OK. That’s fine. Just be careful.’
“Saint John’s gave me community and a safe space to learn and grow. I tell everybody, those were the best four years of my life. I haven’t had as much pure fun in filmmaking since then.”
Sweet’s experience at Saint John’s coincided with a heightened sense of social upheaval across the country, including Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement. He continues to find it useful that he spent several years in “middle America” because that audience drives demographics for television. He said broadening his sensibilities and understanding what Minnesotans like and lack will allow him to reach a bigger audience.
“They always championed their lower-level assistants, and I have great respect for that,” Sweet said. “They were always like, ‘Keith, you want to write, but we’ve never read anything that you’ve written.’ They were pressuring me to give them something. And when I did, they were like, ‘Wow, we think this is really good.’ They thought I was good enough to take that leap. They gave me an opportunity and I ran with it and never looked back.”
In 2015, Sweet (fifth from left) had just graduated from Verbum Dei Jesuit High School and got to know director and producer J.J. Abrams (third from left) with others from his film club. Abrams and Trevor Engelson, another producer who has become Sweet’s mentor and manager, both advised him to get a degree at Saint John’s University rather than pursue an education at a film school.
In wake of writers’ strike, future looks bright
One of the primary issues that caused the WGA strike was a dispute about withering residuals from streaming media and how the minimum basic agreement, which set a minimum wage for TV and film writers, covered those who wrote for broadcast television but not shows only available via the Internet. At settlement, the WGA won increases to minimum wage and compensation, increased pension and health fund rates, improvements to terms for length of employment and size of writing teams, and better residuals, including those for foreign streaming. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers also is prohibited from using AI software to reduce or eliminate writers and their pay.
“I think we’re feeling a championship drunkenness right now, so we’ll see if over time the system begins to fix itself,” Sweet said. “It’s a relief to have our strike ended, but now everything is going a million miles an hour after five months of going nowhere.”
Meanwhile, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of TV and Radio Artists went on strike in July, seeking redress to some of the same concerns as the writers. This week, SAG-AFTRA reached a new agreement, and people like Sweet are racing to get material ready for the actors to return so the industry can churn at full speed again.
The WGA is assured of steady work for at least three years under the new agreement.
“I wish it was longer, but it actually makes sense for it to be a shorter term because the industry changes so rapidly,” Sweet said. “I may actually have weathered the strike better than a lot of people because I’d already gone a year and a half without working. That gives you an idea how brutal this business can be. But it didn’t break me. And now I’m starting to see the fruits of that labor.”
As he spoke for this story, Sweet’s phone buzzed with notes from the producers of Don’t Come to L.A. The show is still in development, meaning there is no release date yet and he only has the green light to write the screenplay for the first two episodes.
“I’m excited,” Sweet said. “It’s my first show, so it’s a lot of unknown waters. More than anything, I’m excited to learn the game and see how it’s played. Right now, it’s a full hour show, but Amazon could see what I come up with and decide to change it completely if they want. Hopefully, my writing will go well and, at some point if they’re looking for a director, I’ll get that opportunity. I have a lot of things to say to the world, with voices people aren’t used to hearing.”
What’s next? Sweet is working on a feature with DreamWorks Animation. He can’t say anything more about it yet, but he’s got optimism to go around. And, while he’s Compton born and raised, he loves Minnesota, would like to buy a home here and use it for a base to work if he’s successful enough to make that happen. Regardless, one of his big dreams is to premier a film, with actors and everything, at Saint John’s. As unlikely or unbelievable as that may seem, don’t put it past him.
“The more credits I get, the more people will take me seriously,” he added. “My mom and dad inspired me to work hard, and I never want to fail because I didn’t. That would be the worst kind of failure. Fortunately, I love the work. It’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Sweet (right) meets with the film club at his former high school in 2019, after he graduated from Saint John’s. Among his goals are to someday return to Minnesota to make a movie and also premier a film with its actors and attendant publicity at SJU.