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