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Academics Alum Features

Only a few years removed from SJU, Keith Sweet’s career in Hollywood is already among the stars

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 with YG and Damani Johnson

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.

So far, he’s winning people over. Like Kevin and Dan Hageman, screenwriters of The Lego Movie, who created Prodigy.

“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.”

Keith Sweet with his film club, meeting J.J. Abrams

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.”

Keith Sweet meets with film club at his alma mater in 2019

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.

Keith Sweet II '19

Keith Sweet II ’19 knew before he came to Saint John’s University that he wanted a career in film. From even before he arrived on campus, he has developed relationships in Hollywood that — combined with his self-designed degree from SJU — have generated work as a writer, and he would like one day to expand into directing and producing, too. 

Keith Sweet’s credits at a glance

Below is a summary of the credits Keith Sweet II ’19 has earned during the past five years in Hollywood:

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

Sweet was a production assistant for this 1-hour-and-42-minute Netflix film about a group of scientists orbiting a planet on the brink of war. They test a device to solve an energy crisis and end up face-to-face with a dark alternate reality. The picture was produced by J.J. Abrams, who produced Cloverfield in 2008, two years after his directorial debut with Mission: Impossible III. Abrams, whose dozens of major motion picture and TV credits include Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) and Star Trek Beyond (2016), directed a film co-produced by Steven Spielberg (Super 8) and directed or produced three others with Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible series (III, Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation).

“I was literally just a production assistant, yelling ‘Rolling!’ and ‘Cut!’ all day,” Sweet said. “Outside of what I’d done with Star Wars, which was uncredited and that was fine, it was the first time I was on a film set. We were on the Paramount lot, which is one of my favorite places to be in the whole wide world. It was so much fun to see people act, direct, lights – the whole thing.”

By Their Fruit (2020)

Sweet wrote, directed and co-produced this short thriller under his own label, Unfulfilled Dreams. It features a voice performance by Philicia Saunders, whose screen credits include The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker.

Star Trek: Prodigy (2021-24)

Sweet was an assistant to the producers of an animated action/adventure contribution to the Star Trek canon. The TV series, which originated on Paramount+, centers on a group of enslaved teenagers who steal a derelict Starfleet vessel to escape and explore the galaxy. It was nominated for an Emmy in 2022 (Outstanding Animated Series) and a Television Critics Association award in 2023 (Outstanding Achievement in Family Programming). It won a 2023 Tell-Tale TV award for Favorite Animated Series. It debuted on Oct. 28, 2021, and included 20 episodes in its first season, when Sweet contributed to several episodes and at 23 became the youngest writer in Star Trek history. A second season on Netflix was recently announced for 2024.

“I was an assistant to the guys who created the show for about a year, and I wasn’t a Star Trek fan,” Sweet said. “I was into Star Wars. Star Trek was a little too sophisticated for my young mind. But as I got immersed in that world, I fell in love with it. I learned the history of it, because Star Trek has been around for a long time, and the fandom is crazy. Writing for Prodigy is my biggest achievement so far. I think what I eventually connected with was how these were stories of humanity told in a fantastical way. It’s a reflection of who we are as a society and what our fears are. It manifests through this space voyage and the Federation and what they stand for. It’s a beautiful playground to play in.”

Keith Sweet with Stark Trek: Prodigy staff

Sweet (left) is a part of the staff for Star Trek: Prodigy. He is the youngest writer in the history of the Star Trek canon, which dates to its origination as a TV show in 1966. Prodigy creators Dan and Kevin Hageman are are lower right.

Don’t Come to L.A. (In development)

Amazon MGM Studios recently bought the rights to this TV drama from rapper-actor YG and Damani Johnson, who has produced or written multiple series in the past 12 years. Trevor Engelson, Sweet’s longtime mentor, is involved among other producers, and Sweet has been hired to write the storyline. It includes a low-level Los Angeles gangster assigned to protect one of the hottest rappers in the industry by a crime syndicate security company. He must navigate both the bloodthirsty gang world and the glitz and glam of the celebrity scene.

“What I’m trying to bring through are figments of the American dream, and how much of a fallacy that is,” Sweet said. “Just because you do things the right way, that doesn’t benefit you all the time. It’s a consistent storyline through the eyes of a 19-year-old Black kid from Compton. I’m obviously putting a lot of myself in there, and people that I know. It’s a drama that shows how the gangs of Los Angeles kind of run the entertainment industry in a way, and they’re organized for the smash-and-grab robberies you may have heard about lately. All those things are connected in a violent community.”

Keith Sweet at graduation in 2019

Even before Sweet graduated from Saint John’s more than four years ago, his career in film was well under way. He still says his four years as a Johnnie were the best experience of his life.