Carmen Alzner is a filmmaker who lives a life that’s open to possibilities; always seeking and finding new ways to learn, grow and explore. She’s found that just asking has opened doors and opportunities for her throughout her career, starting when she was just a young girl.
Carmen: Did I have a dream? It’s really a tricky question because I think I’m one of these people who don’t have dreams.
Carmen: I think I was trained to, in a time, where people always had to set goals, you know. When you start to work in a business life you have get a goal for your life and all of that. I always found that a bit… not weird but it didn’t really work for me because I always wanted to be open for the sidetracks, the side parts.
Carmen: I always found setting myself a serious goal - I don’t know - wanting to become a millionaire or make a film by then and then and then and by that age - I was always resistant to think like that because it’s kind of what I was trained when I went to uni and then later at work. Because I thought it would hinder my creativity if I follow one path and probably I ignore things coming along.
Dennis: You’d miss something along the way.
Carmen: I’m not a big dreamer to be honest.
Carmen: I don’t know if it’s a problem.
Carmen: But I know what I want to feel and, I guess, that is also kind of what drives me.
Carmen: It’s not a vision but it is a feeling and it’s a feeling, which is I think, being in the moment, being happy in the moment with whatever I do, you know. Business or even if I go for dinner with friends or whatever. It’s enjoying this moment. I think that’s my goal in life but it’s not like that I get up in the morning I think, “Oh, I have to have this joyful moment or whatever.” I want to be open.
Dennis: It’s part of who you are.
Carmen: Of course, if you live like that and go through life like that, it’s also confusing at times, you know, because you don’t have a goal. If you study medicine or something…
Dennis: Concrete, and...
Carmen: Concrete, you know, you have to review. We’re in a creative business and we’re telling stories. You want to find good stories and you want to tell good stories in whatever medium. Whatever medium is popular at that moment or in the medium where people are open to hear your story or other people’s stories. I see myself as a link between a person’s story and an audience. I think that is what drives me to find these people. I think, again, a dream probably, in my case, would have hindered me is my theory.
Carmen: Would have hindered me to probably hear these stories because telling stories means you have to listen and be quiet and shut up. If I constantly look for my own goal then it probably would hinder me to hear the stories and the interesting things.
The older I get, the more exciting I find life, you know, because if you… especially times like that. We have so many amazing technologies available to tell stories and share pain and joy and all of these things and people are open for them. They’re not so much interested anymore not just in the scripted. I mean in the well-scripted, of course, people are interested in that. They’re so open for these cool little gems, you know, to find and technology allows us to do that.
We were just speaking about it. It’s not relevant anymore that it’s 8K or 4K quality. It’s fine to see a film in an amazing quality. But if it’s a bad story and it’s boring thing, I don’t give a toss about the quality of the film, you know. It’s a boring story.
I think that is such an empowering thought that I’m always able to share and that drives me and that makes me happy in the morning. That is my dream that I can sustain that and share these moments and people. And, also, hearing about that. I mean I love books. I’m a reader. I’ve always been reading. That makes me happy too.
One of my goals, probably, that I remember when I was a teenager. Books were always my friends. I had friends but I also had lots of books. I remember there was a show - I grew up in Austria - and they had a show, a “telly”, and it was interviewing mothers of famous men, of famous people.
Carmen: One of my favorite heroes of that time was a singer-songwriter called André Heller. He came from a very, very rich background. He didn’t really need to work so he could really play around or whatever. I remember, vividly - I was like 12 or 13 - I saw this interview with him and he said, “I just…” They asked him, “So what are you doing?” and they asked also the mother. Again, he was rich; he didn’t need to work. Well, he sometimes spends the whole day reading. I thought, “Wow! That’s amazing.” So you can really get entrenched in the story and in a book.
That’s what kept me going in my life. Reading good books and learning from other people. A book is just one form of a medium, you know, and now we have probably shorter stories and shorter stuff but this is what it is. That you’re not on your own in this world. That it’s fine. Yes, we go through hard times, or whatever, but there’s other stories, inspiring stories, hopeful stories, you know?
Dennis: As a storyteller, what got you started down the path of doing the video work, and so forth, that you do?
Carmen: I started in radio.
Carmen: I was… between a moderator, presenter in radio. During holidays, it was a job I took on over the summer in Italy for German tourists. That was amazing. I loved that. Because they just threw you in front of a microphone because they needed presenters. At that time that was wild Italian legislation.
The owner of the radio channel, he was like a technological… he just like technology and he thought, “Oh, I opened up a radio channel.” He was an Italian guy. In Italy, in order to get a license… You didn’t need a license. All you needed to do, you put a signal on a transmitter for 24 or 48 hours and then you own that…
Dennis: Own that frequency. That’s crazy.
Carmen: …own that frequency. Yeah, that’s what it was. I don’t know how it’s now but in the late ‘80s or whatever, it was like that.
So he was looking for German-speaking people and I heard through a friend there’s this guy, he’s looking for people. At that time I was in Salzburg. Took my car and drove down and said, “Well, I want to work.” He said, “Oh great. You can have the show tomorrow morning at 9:00.”
Carmen: Seriously. I always like to talk, you know? So here I am. [both laugh] He sat me in front of this microphone. It was in a garage, of course. He was actually also the owner of a few boutiques in a small little village at the lake of Garda but there’s many German tourists. He made money by selling advertising, local advertising. He had to fill the space between the advertising with program.
But there was three, four, five people from Germany and so on and we made radio for a summer. It was wild. It was great. It was free. We had fun. This guy couldn’t check us; he just trusted us. “Okay, they speak German.”
Dennis: He had no idea what you were saying, or anything?
Carmen: No idea, yeah. But that’s how I met one guy. He already had experience because that was the time when private channels came up in Germany as well.
Carmen: So he trained us kind of. He gave us some feedback. So we had the morning show and then we went then for a swim. That’s how I got into radio. And then someone was listening to that channel, they were on holidays, and they hired me and I moved to Germany because he heard me.
Dennis: Because they heard you on that radio station in Italy.
Carmen: Yes. Exactly. They were looking for talents and, obviously, he liked what I did. I moved to Germany because of that. So, you know, you’re just thrown into a career.
And then you get really good training. I mean the channel I worked for it was owned by a newspaper and then I got journalism training and all of that, you know, after my studies. Finished my studies parallel.
Dennis: Studies were in journalism or radio, TV?
Carmen: Yeah. Journalism and literature, yeah.
Dennis: Okay. Great.
Carmen: So that the whole storytelling, the whole feeling how wonderful it feels to hear another story is deeply ingrained through reading books and they’re still what drives me, actually. Coming back to the story of this guy sitting on the sofa.
For me, at this point in life, I feel that I’m happy because I have achieved that I can take off an hour in the morning or in the evening and read a book. So I really try to read two hours a day. It’s part of my…
Dennis: It’s part of your schedule.
Carmen: It’s part of my happiness to read other people’s stories. That was my goal. When I was 14 I thought, “Oh, that would be cool.” If you could really achieve that you can dedicate time, that’s great. That’s kind of the whole storytelling and that kind of never left me. So, I guess, that was my dream.
Dennis: Where did you go after the radio career?
Carmen: After the radio, I kept working there and then I felt I need to try television. At that time there wasn’t lots of - there was public broadcasters in Germany. At that time I already went to the NAB in the States, you know.
Dennis: Right. Yeah, National Association of Broadcasters Conference.
Carmen: Exactly. So I went to the conferences through the radio thing. I remember I was, you know, you have these classic dinners. You’re sitting, eight people around the thing. I met this guy from, I think, from ABC. Some guy in the management thing and I said, “I’d love to get the chance to work for a channel in the States.” He said, “Oh!” and he worked for ABC. He said, “You know what, oh, I have a friend. He runs a channel, a Westinghouse channel in Baltimore. Why don’t you stop by and say hello? Ask him if he doesn’t allow you to spend some time at the channel and learn about American television.” Because I was interested in how do they run, how is the management doing? How does American television work because it was obviously so different to Germany.
I literally booked a flight to Baltimore while I was out there and then met this General Manager. He said, “Yeah, why don’t you come and join us? I mean we can’t really pay you but you get the chance to spend a year or so with us.”
Dennis: And you did it?
Carmen: And I did it. I kept working for another year, whatever, in Germany or half a year, whatever. It was not a whole year but…
Dennis: For free. You worked for free? I mean essentially.
Carmen: Yeah, essentially I worked for free because they couldn’t officially because I didn’t have a green card and…
Dennis: Right. Right.
Carmen: …so they couldn’t. It was kind of an intern or a traineeship or whatever. That’s how I ended up all of a sudden in Baltimore. I mean we’re talking 1990 so that was different times.
Dennis: Well, yeah, but even in 1990 that’s a bold move to make.
Carmen: There’s one thing my father told me, “All you can get is a no.” There is nothing else you can get in life. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get anything.
Dennis: Yeah. If you don’t ask the question, the answer’s going to be no.
Carmen: Exactly. So then you could get on with it and live with it. But a ‘no’ can’t kill you. You then just walk a different path.
That’s what I meant in the beginning. If I would have had the goal, “Okay, I want to be in America,” whatever. I probably wouldn’t be as relaxed and nonchalant. By just, you know, wandering through life in a way.
Dennis: Wandering through life and asking questions.
Carmen: And asking questions, it happened. I had a great time. I learned so much. So I spent a lot of time in the newsroom because I was literally had the journalistic background and I was watching that and, also, management. But then I also saw, “Oh, the marketing department, interesting.” They did lots of promotion, all of these things and trailers and I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting how they actually communicate with their viewers.” At that time you didn’t have trailers or any kind of stuff in German television; it didn’t exist because you didn’t have private channels yet. So there was not really a competitive market. Whereas in America…
Dennis: It was very competitive.
Carmen: …it was very competitive. It was a completely different mindset and a different niche. You had a local channel, you had the big networks. That’s where I thought, “How interesting.” And research. They did research. They asked and I got the chance to hang out at Nielsen a bit and learn how they do that because I was interested.
Dennis: It’s crazy!
Carmen: I know. [laughs] But that’s kind of… I thought, “Oh, interesting.”
So they are really interested in the mind of the people. They’re interested in how do we think, how do we react, how can we influence? It was like reading minds. That kind of hooked me because I’m very interested how people tick. Because I find them, again, stories. I find them fascinating. What makes you tick? What makes you get up or react like that? So already, at that point, I thought, “Oh, how interesting!”
So there is a whole department thinking about the audience and not just blurring things out. They’re starting to think about, “Okay, if I do this, the audience has this reaction - or not.” Of course it’s advertising but, you know, there was a…
Dennis: There’s commercial motivation behind it.
Dennis: As opposed to the public broadcaster in Germany was cranking out content based on what they wanted to produce and how much it was viewed was not really important to a certain degree, right?
Carmen: Yeah, not at all. It wasn’t necessary.
Carmen: So then after that time I thought, “Okay.” Then I had to return to Germany. I remember I was at a NAB convention in Boston after that time in Baltimore. Before Boston I got - I also love that - I picked up a car in Washington. At that time you could… There was an agency. You could call them. There was no mobile or apps or whatever. So you called people. I sound so very old. Anyhow, I’m not that old people!
Carmen: It just sounded so very old.
Anyhow, so I called this agency and said, “I’d love to deliver a car to the West Coast.” I picked up a car in Washington and drove it through the country - Americana - ecause I had this, “Oh God, I want to drive through the country.” That was my holiday at the end of my internship, if you want to call it. Dropped it off in Carlsbad, California.
Carmen: And then I flew back to Boston to the NAB convention. At that NAB convention, I met another ABC guy and he was actually… ABC, at that time, had a share of a channel in Germany, Tele 5 with Berlusconi who owned Tele 5 at that time.
Dennis: Oh, really?
Carmen: Yeah. What was his name? Rick something. I asked this Rick guy because I was introduced to him before, so I met him before. So I said, “I’m looking for a job in Germany. You have a channel in Germany, can you connect me?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, when you’re back call this and that guy in Munich.” Probably they need someone who just had a bit of experience of American television.
Carmen: So he recommended me.
And then I called the then General Manager of Tele 5, Jochen Kröhne, and he is a great guy and open-minded or whatever. I said, “Well, Rick sent me. I just wanted to see if you need someone.” At that time he was actually hiring his head of marketing. They didn’t have a promotion department or whatever.
Carmen: I remember on the call he was sitting in this… He was just interviewing this guy and I met my future boss and then I had a job. I had a job at this TV channel. [both laugh] I know! I’m telling you.
Dennis: [laughs] How do you do this? [both laugh]
Carmen: But it was different time. Keep in mind. That was like… there was no competition. There were very few private channels in Germany.
Dennis: Right. And you had the experience.
Carmen: I had a bit of experience and I had radio experience. So it wasn’t that I was like, “Oh hello. I’m dumb and I want a job here.” I was recommended; I had a recommendation at that time. I mean I did have all of that. I was young and hungry and ready to work hard. It’s all connected with working hard. And then I started as a promo producer for Tele 5. That was fun. So we produced trailers at the end of that. I’d seen it in America because I was hanging out with these guys and I was also allowed to edit a bit. So I had more experience than some of the other people who had never done that. It was learning by doing and we had lots of fun.
During that period, they also needed a corporate identity because they didn’t have a corporate identity. They said, “Okay, we need to have a brand.” They understood, “Okay, we need to find our identity as a channel.” It was not that wild so that they understood that. Then they did a pitch. I, all of a sudden, was responsible for corporate identity and worked with an agency in England, Lambie-Nairn and Company.
Dennis: Oh, Lambie-Nairn? Sure.
Carmen: Yeah. They’re brilliant.
Carmen: Because my English was okay, I all of a sudden…
Dennis: You picked up that task as well then. Oh how funny!
Carmen: Yeah. From then on I just fell into one thing to another.
But I worked very hard. I really want to stress that. I totally dedicated my time to what I did. I worked night shifts and never left before 10:00 because I loved it. I really loved… It was like trying things. I mean we had budgets and we could really produce things. They were probably not that good but we figured it out. It was very experimental in a way. I mean looking back compared to how much pressure you have today and how much testing you do before you put something on air or whatever, we just put things on air and we thought, “That’s probably not that good. We can do it differently next time.” [both laugh] People were much more forgiving, you know, and the audience was much more forgiving.
Dennis: Well, it was early. It was early and…
Carmen: It was early.
Dennis: …you were cutting your teeth. It was cutting edge. You could play with it a bit and you didn’t have the competitive pressure at that moment.
Carmen: At that moment. I mean it came very quickly. I mean it’s not… But to have experienced this playfulness - I think that’s what’s happening with a lot of startups these days. I think there is a certain playfulness with some of them - of course they have - or what I observe. I think that it’s beautiful. If you have a business, you can sustain that because amazing things come out of it and we had lots of fun.
I kept then doing radio. I then moved to - after a few years with Tele 5, I moved to a cable channel, Premiere, in Hamburg. Well, actually between that, I have to say, I did another thing in… The channel was sold to Kirch, which was… Leo Kirch was this huge… So all of the shares were sold to Tele Muenchen.
We were offered a job to stay and become a sports channel and I thought, “Well, no, three years or something, or four years is enough.” So I thought I’d love to do… learn a bit more about film or just have, like, kind of sabbatical or something to just learn more about content again.
Then I decided okay, I’ll take a few months off between jobs and I said, “Okay, I’ll try to see if I can spend a semester or something at UCL, in LA, at the film department.” Not really registering but just sit in with some of the sessions. I did the same thing. I just knocked at the door, flew to LA, went to UCL to the Film Department and said, “I’m a TV person from Germany. I have a few months. Can I just sit in one of your classes and be a listener and learn?”
Dennis: Right. Not registered…
Carmen: Not registered or whatever. And they said, “Yes”, again.
They introduced me to this one really amazing scriptwriting professor and I told him what I want. He said, “Yeah, yeah. You can pick and you can come to my classes.” So I picked a few classes so I could put up my own little curriculum. So I was hanging out for three, four months with this. I was just having sessions with Spike Lee and, you know.
Carmen: Seriously. [Laughs]
Dennis: That’s amazing!
Carmen: I know. But, again, I actually wanted to study there but then, at the same time, was hungry to produce and do things. You have to make a living, too. I needed to make money as well. I couldn’t stay in the States because I didn’t have a green card or anything. I was limited, again, by time.
Dennis: Sure. Three months, whatever it is.
Carmen: So I literally… while I was working I was saving money.That was always my thing. Always have enough money in the bank accounts. You can live a few months and buy a few tickets so you can hop on a plane and fulfill this spontaneous urge you have.
Dennis: That’s great.
Carmen: I always have that and I still do that. Even if I kind of have to cut back, whatever, I always keep this thing so I have the fuel for a few months, one or two, to follow this impulse because that’s what it is, an impulse. That is probably how I function to have this safety for freedom because that’s what I… that’s what you feel when you do things like that, you feel free for a few weeks.
Dennis: All that freedom has led you to a television career. It got you started in film as a result, right?
Carmen: Yes, exactly. And just ask. Again, it’s my whole… I think my whole strategy.
I never talked about it like this. I guess that’s my structure and it’s my… If you have an impulse and it’s a passion. All of that was really passionate because I was hungry and I wanted to learn. I think that’s the other thing: learning. I always want to learn, even today. I don’t want to feel settled or anything, that would disturb me if I feel, “Okay, I have arrived.” That would be a very disturbing thought for me. I don’t think that’s part… I think that’s a not for me. It’s not a…
Dennis: You continue to evolve, right?
Carmen: Exactly. Yeah, yeah, evolve. Exactly. But, you know, a lot of people… that’s why I think having a dream and a goal wouldn’t work for me because then I’d feel, “Okay, I’m there now.” Whereas if I don’t have one. But what I have… I know the feeling I want to have. So, if my goal is the feeling of feeling free and having an impulse and asking questions and learning and being fed through…
I mean I’ve met so many amazing people in my life, and I still do, and listen how they think and what drives them. That makes me happy and feel free. I guess that’s my guiding light in my life. That’s why storytelling is such a beautiful, beautiful thing to do. Or listening.
Dennis: Right. This is why we’re doing this.
Carmen: Yeah, exactly.
Dennis: You have a great story.
Carmen: Yeah. I don’t know. It’s just mine.
Carmen: So, that’s my dream.
Dennis: It’s beautiful.
Dennis: Thank you.
Carmen: You’re welcome.
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