Students and faculty remember John Sweet as a kind and talented teacher with a passion for championing his students and improving their work.
Sweet, a professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, died at the age of 57 on Dec. 28. Sweet spent several decades working as a screenwriter for film and television before teaching in the screenwriting program at UCLA for 10 years.
Sweet was born in 1960 in Panama City, Florida. He majored in theater at the University of West Florida, graduating in 1984, before completing the MFA screenwriting program at UCLA in 1997.
One of Sweet’s career highlights was writing the screenplay for the movie “The Affair of the Necklace,” starring Hilary Swank, Christopher Walken and Adrien Brody, said Dan Tino, a graduate student in fine arts in UCLA’s screenwriting program.
Tino said Sweet enjoyed working on that movie and shared stories of having dinner with Walken during the movie’s filming.
“He said that was one of the best things he’s done,” Tino said.
Tino said Sweet was his first workshop teacher at UCLA and encouraged him to join the MFA program.
“He was the students’ biggest champion – he went to bat for a lot of people I know,” Tino said. “He was one of those people that really got pleasure out of doing good for people and seeing other people happy and seeing them live their dreams.”
Tino said Sweet had a particular method of providing feedback that was very effective with the writers in his program. Sweet and his students pantomimed holding a stick he referred to as the “Stupid Stick” while sharing their opinions with the class, calling their ideas the “Stupid Stick’s suggestions.” This way, they could give feedback in a relaxed, humorous manner when students shared new ideas.
“It was a way to offer advice without sounding authoritative and imposing his will on anyone else’s creativity,” he said.
Richard Walter, the associate dean of student affairs and area head of the MFA screenwriting program, said he thinks Sweet was a kind and generous man who supported his students and colleagues. Walter said when he asked Sweet to review a novel he was working on, he responded right away.
“He was so enthusiastic,” Walter said.
Sweet was also popular among his students, Walter added.
“They loved him dearly and they always flocked to his courses,” he said. “They feel that he (was) … capable of providing really valuable support, of really getting into the nuts and bolts of the script.”
Andy Wankier, a second-year MFA student, said Sweet put him at ease when he interviewed him for the screenwriting program.
“I was so nervous when I came to interview, and I walk in and he was in his jeans and his alligator boots and he had that southern humble attitude,” Wankier said. “He was very warm, very much wanting to know about you. He didn’t try to rewrite your story, he only wanted to help you write it.”
Walter said that he was reminded of Sweet’s thoughtful personality after reading a letter of recommendation that Sweet wrote for a student applying to the screenwriting program. Walter said he felt emotional opening the letter because it arrived after Sweet had passed away.
“I’ve been writing letters of recommendation for 40 years, and most professors find that their letters become almost like boilerplates – but (Sweet’s) was articulated in a uniquely caring and affirming way,” Walter said. “It really spoke to his character that he was able to provide a very unique description of the student in question.”
Tino said he thinks one of the reasons Sweet enjoyed his job was because he was proud to teach at UCLA.
“I know it sounds trite, but he really did smile all the time – I would see him strolling around campus with his satchel,” he said. “He wore his Bruin pride on his sleeve.”
Wankier said the School of Theater, Film and Television plans to recognize Sweet during its showcase film festival in June. Sweet won the showcase when he was a student in the MFA program, Wankier added.
“It’s going to be a fitting way to say goodbye,” he said.
Walter said Sweet’s passing has been very difficult for him to accept.
“Even now that he’s gone you hear me talking about him in the present tense as if he’s here,” he said. “The truth is he was the most aptly named man that ever walked the earth.”
He is survived by his mother, Virginia Sweet and his sister, Shawn Sweet Geradine.