Magic touch

Car­men Pavlovic is the cool head be­hind a white-hot en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness. The Global Crea­tures chief talks to Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

WHEN you tell peo­ple you’re go­ing to meet a dragon, they may ask whether you mean a ko­modo dragon or an ac­tual fire­breath­ing crea­ture like Puff or Smaug, as if there were any other kind. Of course, the ven­er­a­ble ko­modo isn’t a dragon at all; it’s a lizard. So ra­tio­nal rep­tiles can wait out­side, please, as we en­ter the dragons’ lair.

They are tem­po­rar­ily mak­ing their home at Stage 7, Fox Stu­dios, Syd­ney — a vast dark­ened cave like an air­craft han­gar. The brightly coloured Nad­der, usu­ally flighty and ag­gres­sive, is so sub­dued you can touch his rub­bery skin. Up close you no­tice his mu­cousy nose, wet with dragon snot. The rarely seen, hy­per-in­tel­li­gent Night Fury with its enor­mous wings is hav­ing a snooze. But on ap­proach it raises a sleepy eye­lid — with the aid of a tech­ni­cian and a lap­top — and re­gards you with his huge yel­low eye. ‘‘ It’s very hard to know he’s not real,’’ says dragon wran­gler (and some­time theatre di­rec­tor) Nigel Jamieson.

Wel­come to the un­nat­u­ral his­tory of How to Train Your Dragon Arena Spec­tac­u­lar, com­ing from the same peo­ple who pro­duced the pre­his­toric prom­e­nade Walk­ing with Di­nosaurs. Global Crea­tures is an Aus­tralian en­ter­tain­ment com­pany with a highly spe­cialised act: gi­ant-size an­i­ma­tronic beasts from the real or imag­ined past. Walk­ing with Di­nosaurs has thrilled young­sters and their par­ents around the world, but How to Train Your Dragon is an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent an­i­mal. If all goes to plan next month, those dragons will fly and swoop over Melbourne’s Hisense Arena, be­fore leav­ing a fiery trail to Syd­ney, Bris­bane and the US.

More than 300 peo­ple are work­ing on this show, un­der com­mand of dragon-in-chief Car­men Pavlovic, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Global Crea­tures. Pavlovic, 42, wears a lot of black, laughs of­ten, is de­voted to her two kids, and heads Australia’s top-earn­ing en­ter­tain­ment com­pany. She’s far from the im­age of the cor­po­rate suit, even a Gail Kelly.

But to­day, you can’t help but no­tice, she’s look­ing a bit an­i­ma­tronic her­self. Flat shoes, no make-up. She’s done her neck in, phys­ios and os­teos haven’t helped, and for the past two weeks she’s had to turn her whole body, ro­bot-like, to look around.

It must be stress-re­lated, you think, given Pavlovic is in charge of a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar show with a lot of untested tech­nol­ogy and has a Hol­ly­wood stu­dio breath­ing down her neck. ‘‘ I don’t feel any more stressed than usual,’’ she says, blink­ing as we emerge into the sun­shine and mov­ing very gin­gerly. It seems she hurt her­self do­ing push-ups to im­press her hus­band. ‘‘ It’s a van­ity in­jury,’’ she in­sists, laugh­ing again.

Pavlovic joined Global Crea­tures in 2008 when Walk­ing with Di­nosaurs was in dan­ger of ca­reer­ing out of con­trol. The show that started with a $150,000 pro­to­type in­vest­ment by Jayco car­a­vans’ Gerry Ryan was a run­away suc­cess. But the tour­ing op­er­a­tion had ex­panded rapidly and with­out a proper man­age­ment struc­ture. Pavlovic has brought in new peo­ple, ideas for new shows — in­clud­ing a mu­si­cal ver­sion of King Kong — and won the stage rights to Strictly Ball­room.

How to Train Your Dragon, though, is the first Global Crea­tures pre­miere with Pavlovic in charge. For the unini­ti­ated, it’s based on a hugely pop­u­lar chil­dren’s film about a boy in Vik­ing times and his pet dragon called Tooth­less. Hol­ly­wood stu­dio Dreamworks was look­ing for a pro­duc­tion part­ner and ap­proached Global Crea­tures about turn­ing its com­puter-gen­er­ated dragons into life­like fly­ing mon­sters.

There were pre­lim­i­nary dis­cus­sions and a dragon fea­si­bil­ity study — ‘‘ Could we get them to fly, could we get them to breathe fire?’’ Pavlovic says — but for a while noth­ing hap­pened and life went on. Pavlovic, who has a son with theatre de­signer Peter Eng­land, gave birth to their sec­ond child, Mil­lie. The fam­ily with their new­born baby were pre­par­ing to move to Bri­tain where they’d be putting an­other com­pany of Di­nosaurs on the road. Then the call came from Dreamworks: ‘‘ It would be great if we could get the deal done in a week.’’

That was two years ago. Now, barely weeks from open­ing night, the pres­sure must be un­bear­able. The show is hor­ren­dously com­plex, in­volv­ing as it does 24 dragons, vast video pro­jec­tions of as­ton­ish­ing de­tail and so­phis­ti­cated an­i­ma­tion soft­ware, not to men­tion a cast of ac­tors, ac­ro­bats and five re­mote-con­trol ‘‘ voodoo pup­peteers’’, who will give Tooth­less and co their char­ac­ter­is­tic ex­pres­sions. The dragons will be made to fly from tracks — like an up­side-down train set — high above the arena stage.

Jamieson has worked on ev­ery­thing from the Syd­ney Olympic Games open­ing cer­e­mony to phys­i­cal theatre in a black box. But even he has had doubts about whether How to Train Your Dragon can open as planned on March 2. The tech­ni­cal chal­lenges, the mul­ti­tudi­nous de­tails, seemed in­sur­mount­able.

Pavlovic must have a supremely cool head. Twenty-odd years in show­busi­ness hardly makes her a veteran, but she’s had some tough gigs be­fore this one. In her last job she ran 25 the­atres in Europe and pro­duced the first long-run­ning mu­si­cal in Moscow: Cats, in Rus­sian.

She’s learned that ev­ery prob­lem has a so­lu­tion. ‘‘ As soon as you’re in­no­vat­ing some­thing, you don’t know what you’re deal­ing with,’’ she says, sit­ting in the af­ter­noon sun. ‘‘ We don’t know what we’re deal­ing with here. We put the dragons up on the flight track this week­end and, guess what, ev­ery­thing didn’t go ac­cord­ing to plan. They it’s fine, but we’re still not through the very complicated part of pro­gram­ming them. You just have to go in with an as­sump­tion that ev­ery­thing is solv­able, ev­ery­thing is ne­go­tiable ... It’s the only way I can man­age my stress lev­els not get­ting out of con­trol on these things, be­cause they’re so scary.’’

fly, PAVLOVIC grew up in Can­berra, one of six chil­dren. Her mother Pauline is Aus­tralian and her fa­ther Ivan was a Croa­t­ian im­mi­grant. He’d been branded a trou­ble­maker at home for ‘‘ giv­ing the fin­ger to com­mu­nism’’; at 18 he es­caped across the bor­der with two friends. They didn’t tell any­one they were go­ing. He ar­rived in Australia as a le­gal im­mi­grant.

The fam­ily weren’t theatre­go­ers but cul­ture was abun­dant in the home, with Balkan mu­sic and hos­pi­tal­ity. ‘‘ He grew his own veg­eta­bles, made his own stock, made his own cheese,’’ Car­men says of her fa­ther. ‘‘ It was leg­endary what a great cook he was.’’

She looked up to her brother Stephen, a few years older. He was the cool one, with the record col­lec­tion and friends in bands. Buy­ing Christ­mas presents was a nightmare: she’d try to im­press him with a new record but it was al­ways the wrong thing.

‘‘ She was the grandma, the old lady in the group,’’ says Stephen, now a well-known mu­sic pro­ducer. ‘‘ Even when she was five years old, she acted like she was 35. She was just very moth­erly, or­gan­ised, re­spon­si­ble.’’

A trip to Europe at 17 opened her eyes to the world and gave her an inkling of what she would do with her life. In London, she’d worked as a nanny for a cou­ple who were mak­ing doc­u­men­taries in Rus­sia. Rus­sian lan­guage, lit­er­a­ture and his­tory took hold of her, and she liked the idea of a creative life — if not film­mak­ing, then some­thing else.

Back home, she did Rus­sian stud­ies at Melbourne Univer­sity and ran the box of­fice at the Com­edy Club. She de­cided to do a mas­ters de­gree in busi­ness: the study was tor­ture but, she rea­soned, it would be her ticket to a vaguely imag­ined fu­ture that in­volved hav­ing chil­dren and work­ing in the en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness. She got a job with theatre pro­ducer Ross Mol­li­son and mounted a re­gional tour of Cats in a cir­cus tent. Tim Mcfar­lane of­fered her a job with An­drew Lloyd Web­ber’s Re­ally Use­ful Com­pany. Then her world turned up­side down.

‘‘ In 2001, I had a dif­fi­cult year,’’ she says. ‘‘ I lost a baby, and that just re­ally threw me. The guy I was hav­ing the baby with, we split up pretty quickly af­ter­wards. I re­ally learned what grief can do to peo­ple. I’d gone from think­ing I was on this path — ma­ter­nity leave, hav­ing this baby, hav­ing our house — and al­most overnight there was no baby, my part­ner walked out ... it was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for me.’’

Car­men Pavlovic

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