Out of the various films to run at the Tribeca Film Festival, the coveted spot that would open the film festival was given to an unlikely suspect. The documentary on the moderately popular indie rock band The National, titled Mistaken For Strangers kicked off the festival on April 17. Certainly a huge feat for first time director Tom Berninger, but an unusual pick by the jury.
Painted as the black sheep of the family, at 30, Tom left his parents home in Cincinnati to embark on a tour with his older brother Tom, who just so happens to be the lead singer for The National. Mistaken For Strangers isn’t your typical rock documentary. The approach Berninger took while filming his older brother’s band The National is an interesting one. Following the band on their biggest tour to date, the younger Berninger turned the camera on himself to capture the comical and often tumultuous relationship between him and his brother. A relationship that results in Tom’s firing as assistant tour manager, crying, and a lot of misguided decisions, the documentary isn’t polished by any means, but it still shapes up as a unique portrait of brotherly love.
The Inquisitr’sNiki Cruz spoke with lead singer of The National Matt Berninger, his wife and screenwriter Carin Besser, and director Tom Berninger about Mistaken For Strangers.
THE INQUISITR: How much convincing did it take the band to have you film them for this documentary while on tour?
TOM BERNINGER: Well I was in Cincinnati living with my parents at the time. I was out of a job and I needed a change in my life.
MATT BERNINGER: I wanted him to come on tour to get out of my parents house. He was 30 and I thought it would be good for him. I also thought he could bring his camera along. I asked our tour manager Brandon if there was something Tom could do. Assistant tour manager was the only thing that technically Tom could handle, because he doesn’t know how to tune a guitar. Brandon was happy with that and he knew Tom would bring a good dynamic for me because I often would have no one to vent to. As you could see in the movie, Tom being Brandon’s assistant didn’t work.
THE INQUISITR: What was your goal in making the documentary? Was it more exposure?
MATT: All I wanted was content for the website.
THE INQUISITR: And then it turned into something else.
TOM: Web content would have been good for my career at that point. Anything associated with his band, that’s kind of the reason I got out of Cincinnati and wanted to go on tour with these guys. I needed a reel and I thought this was a great opportunity. Through editing with Carin, we realized we had a real brotherly love movie on our hands.
MATT: Carin was the one that turned that light bulb on. She said, “If you want a real movie it’s not about the band.” Tom shot all of this stuff that was uncomfortable.
CARIN BESSER: I don’t think I was the only one. The band members when Tom was around with the camera kind of got the sense that Tom was fun to watch sometimes. People would take the camera and shoot Tom. He has this lack of guardedness and it’s infectious. When he did sit down with the band they let their guard down.
TOM: I knew that if I was going to make a documentary that I would shoot myself. I started to shoot myself early.
MATT: You did have a chip on your shoulder. You wanted people to know that there was a missing brother.
TOM: I started asking regular rock doc questions about the band, and then I started to complain about Matt. The band members became my shoulder to cry on and in the film we kept all of that. Through the editing we realized that’s the stuff that could be funny, or sad. We didn’t know. At the time we felt, “Are we going to alienate some fans?”
THE INQUISITR: Did your relationship as brothers change through this whole process?
MATT: We know we never want to work together again. I think we learned to accept each other’s differences, and respect each other’s gifts. We did realize how different we are and some of those differences are that Tom has virtues that I’m missing and vice-versa. I figured out how to stop trying to be Tom’s older brother, and just be his brother.
THE INQUISITR: You said you wrote “I Should Live In Salt” about Tom. Is there a certain moment that inspired that song?
TOM: I thought it was about salt the entire time. That’s why I don’t get indie rock! I don’t know.
MATT: That song has been cooking for a while. It was one of the first songs that was being written. Some of that stuff was mostly written after Tom had been fired, and then after when he was living with us. Tom was in my head with that song a lot. I don’t think I did anything wrong, but I left for college when he was 9 years old and I was his older brother slash hero when he was a little kid, and then I just poof, maybe when he started to need me the most at the time you go from being a little kid to a teenager. I was off to college and then New York, and he ended up taking a very different path. I think there was a certain amount of guilt and abandonment into that song. It was the first time I kind of written anything about him.
THE INQUISITR: Did your parents perception of you change since the film opened Tribeca?
TOM: I think my mom has been vindicated by her thoughts of me. I’m happy and I think she’s happy.
MATT: She’s always believed in Tom. She had undying faith that he would be able to do something. She’s like, “See. All you needed to do is stick with something.”
THE INQUISITR: What’s next for the film?
TOM: We’re going to enter it into a lot of festivals but we’re figuring out some kind of theatrical release later in the year. Obviously there’s some places where we know it would work. It would be looked at and well received, hopefully.