Hailed as one of Australia’s first LGBT films, The Set tells the story of wide-eyed country boy Paul Lawrence (Sean McEuan aka Sean Myers) pursuing his dream of going to Art School in Sydney.
Paul quickly ends up as the protégé of renowned designer Marie Rosefield (Brenda Senders) and in doing so, becomes a part of an elite set of Sydneysiders. In this throng of randy artistes, Paul meets Tony (Rod Mullinar) and the two end up as lovers. And that’s just the elevator pitch.
Released in 1970, The Set features more than its fair share of bed-hopping and it’s perhaps no surprise that, at the time, many a tabloid and Australian were clutching their pearls at all of this open sexuality.
Over 40 years later, The Set is finally getting a home release and seeing as the film is based on the novel of the same name by one Mr Roger Ward (famous for his supporting turns in Mad Max, Turkey Shoot, etc), we decided to catch up with the legend to have a very candid chat about the film, his book and his career!
Are you happy that The Set is finally getting a re-release after being locked away for so long?
Yes, I love the fact that my work, be it the film of the novel, the novel itself, or in this case the whole damned catastrophe, is being released. Because, on the DVD they get the film, the novel, and a damned great bunch of extras that even I was delighted to read. In fact, I think just buying the disc to get the extras is a sure-fire way to be entertained.
You’ve had such a bountiful career, what has drawn you to the characters you play?
It sounds like I’m being a smart arse, but money! Every time I’m offered a script, I ask ‘How much?’, even before I read it. Once that side of it has been settled, I will then look at the content. But I must say, in my early days, I was looking for the gung-ho, smooth operator who gets the girl. But I was never offered that!
With a face that only a mother could love, I was offered the ‘heavies’ or the ‘cops’, but I learned a long, long time ago, that whatever you play, play it convincingly, or play it with truth. So, whatever I played, I did it with conviction. Be it an axe murderer, a broken-down boxer, a stroke victim or a gay person, I did it to the best of my ability. It is the pride I have in my craft and my desire to do the best I can that has caused me to play such diverse characters, because, if I ever thought the part may be out of my range, my professional pride stepped in and made me determined to nail it. So, that is why, if the money was right, I never turned down a role. If ever I refused, it was not because of the character, but the coin.
My first memory of you as a child, was when you played the cook in Young Einstein, who cooked cats in a pie. I thought you were terrifying. With your image as an Aussie hard man, do you think that many people will be surprised that you wrote The Set?
Yes, many are, but I was a Cadet Journalist at Adelaide News under a young Rupert Murdoch and wrote many an article with a by-line. Too many, as I was asked to change my writing name. But even then, as an amateur actor in Adelaide’s excellent theatrical world, I was eyeing off the movies. So, I suggested Kirk Douglas for my by-line. Of course, it was poo pooed. So, I opted for Douglas Kirk until poor old Doug wore out his welcome too.
But you’re right, people in the ‘business’ were not only surprised that I was a writer, but also abhorred. How could this ‘thug’, this rough and ready ‘stuntman’ be a writer. So again, I changed my name, and would you believe I was acclaimed, accepted and even sent overseas as my pseudo character to write a co-production with the French. And a script I once presented to the Australian Film Commission under my own name was denounced and ridiculed and the comment was written, ‘Within every stuntman is a genius trying to get out.’ That same film script was presented to a London Literary agent who commented. ‘Mister Ward, I will go so far as to say, this is the best script I have ever read.’ It was optioned by MGM.
The book was written in 1960, and if I understand correctly, based on your diaries from the ‘50s; what lit the fire in your belly to write this particular novel?
I always wanted to write a novel that did not depict Australia as a cattle droving, laconic, backwood. I wanted to show the world – yes, I anticipated worldwide sales even then – that we were a modern society living parallel to any other in the world. But I also wanted to show our heritage, the Life-Saving movement, the Arts, and our society both above and underground. I was also determined to make it salacious because Peyton Place had just been released to great acclaim and I wanted to have that notoriety, that number of sales, that sexuality. Tame by today’s standards but at the time…
So, being an active and prolific member of the Adelaide theatrical scene, I had befriended many weird and wonderful characters, male, female, crossdressers, out and proud, homosexuals, closet queens, lesbians, and nymphomaniacs. I was 16, 17 years old and began to think about the potential of an expose in novel form. To that extent, I wrote articles about it for Melbourne Truth and began to place notes in my diary and to plot a story with the events as they happened. Then, with enough ammunition in notes and diary form, and with 5 reams of quarto paper and a portable typewriter, I headed off to Tahiti to write the ‘Great Australian Novel.’
How did you feel at the time when you first handed your draft manuscript to [director] Frank Brittain? Were you worried about how he or a studio would treat your work?
No way, I was deliriously happy that someone had bought my work. I had just returned from Tahiti on board a 37-foot yacht, with enough adventure behind me to fill another novel. Before I met Frank, I had approached established publishers with the manuscript but was sent packing, not because I was an actor attempting to be a writer, but because I was a writer peddling filth. I was ostracised and dismissed with scowls of disgust. During this time, I acted with and befriended, the actor, Ed Deveraux, who suggested I contact an American producer named Frank Brittain who was looking for Australian stories to tell. I gave the manuscript to Frank who, I discovered later, was dyslexic, and his wife, Diane – actually his third wife – 24 and blonde, everything Frank loved in a girl – did his reading for him. On the eve when I gave them the manuscript, Frank was having a quiet scotch in his lounge when Diane called from the bedroom, where she was reading. ‘Frank, Frank, you have to buy this book.’
‘Why’s that honey?’ Frank asked.
‘Because this guy describes two men, making luuurve.’
That was the beginning, but with a purchase price settled and contracts tied up legally, Frank told me I had to lift every homosexual narrative from the novel and write a screenplay on that. After the initial worry that the normality and adventure within the novel would be lost, I sensed the notoriety a film about homosexuals would create so went ahead with glee. I did not give a thought to Frank’s ability to put the script to film, just sat back and allowed him to get on with it. It was only during the actual filming that the shit hit the fan.
A lot of people coming to The Set, will likely be unaware of the controversy upon its release and the tabloid tittle-tattle during filming (HAZEL NUDE IN FILM is one such headline that comes to mind). As someone who actually lived through that period, do you feel the controversy was warranted? Did you think it detracted from your book?
God no! I loved the publicity. In fact, I caused a lot of it. As I did the PR around the country and to an observer, I was an obnoxious, big-headed brat who thumped the table and declared this was the best film to come out of Australia, that it would go to Cannes and not only that, it would win the Palme d’Or. But underneath it all, I knew it was a shit film. That most of the acting was mediocre, the production value was shit, and if I didn’t get bums on seats, it would die a natural death. So, I was excited and pleased when the theatres held it for weeks on end and when there were traffic jams heading for the Drive-ins where it showed. I also loved the notoriety and the money the film was giving me. So much so, that I turned down the piss-weak money the publishers were now offering. It was my turn to scowl in disbelief. But to answer your question, the film has not detracted from my book, but I do want the public to read the book, to see what the film could have been.
What do you hope today’s audience take away from The Set?
It’s not what I hope. It’s what they do get.
I have young gays and lesbians come to me after a showing to express their delight at the enlightenment they now have of those dim dark ages. They cannot believe the put-down and harassment of their same-sex forebears. They have no need for a film to tell them there are others out there with the same thought processes, the same mores. But with their forebears, I was inundated with messages and letters from young men who had no idea there were others out there with the same thoughts and feelings. They thanked me for enlightening them and letting them know they were not alone. And these were not school kids, some were businessmen, one, a lawyer in New York. They had closed off their minds to their real feelings because of the morality and fear drummed into them by parents. Mine was the same. I remember being at a railway station about to embark on a trip. My parents were there and also the young girl I was dating. When I kissed the girl goodbye, my mother ripped at my clothing and dragged me away in embarrassment. ‘How dare you do that. Stop it immediately.’ And when the acclaim and the publicity and the money began to roll in from my success with The Set, there was no ‘Well done son.’ It was dour, ‘What are the neighbours going to think?’
Obviously, you’re still out there acting and writing, would you ever like to return to Paul, Cara and the rest of the characters in The Set?
Actually, I already have. I’ve completed a television series of The Set with EVERY aspect of my original novel intact. Not, as Frank Brittain dictated, just the homosexual bits. I have also begun writing a sequel!