Months after Tom Berninger
's documentary “Mistaken for Strangers
” opened the Tribeca Film Festival, I became aware of The National’s plan to premier the film in L.A. with a concert event at The Shrine. At this point, and despite having read several glowing reviews of the film, I must admit that my interest was sparked mostly by the fact that The National is one of my favorite bands. Their incredibly nuance sound and their quietly vibrant lyrics have an intoxicating quality loved by hordes of fans around the world. Yet, when I finally had the chance to see the film, I instantly realized that I was witnessing something real, perhaps too honest to be on screen. There was of course great behind the scenes footage of The National and striking images of lead singer Matt Berninger
losing himself to the tunes. But above all that there was Tom Berninger
’s profound quest to find purpose in his own life and reconnect with his rock-star brother.
For years they had in fact, unintentionally, mistaken each other for strangers because their lives had taken different roads. Tom wanted to make movies and Matt’s band had earned a great following and critical praise. But through the making of this documentary, which changed courses during editing, they both rediscovered each other beyond the glossy stage lights and the endless tour bus trips. Tom joined Matt on the High Violet tour for several months to work as a crewmember and to make a fun film about The National and his perception of them. Still, as things usually go, this plan did not turn out as clear-cut as either of them had expected. What was meant to be a humorous depiction of a heavily poetic indie rock band turned out to be a story about two brothers and how one of them struggles to overcome self-doubt in order to make an utterly enjoyable, but deeply touching film.
This week I met with Tom and Matt Berninger
in Los Angeles to chat about this personal and uproarious movie that will forever be a testimony to their fraternal reconnection. There were some margaritas involved, there was maddening rain in L.A, and there were fan-boy questions on my part that were difficult to avoid. Yet, what was most present during this interview was truth. Their brotherly love and all the intricacies it involves was always there, in the flesh, real. One can only be thankful to have talked to a pair of very different, but unquestionably talented people. Here is what they had to say.Carlos Aguilar
: Tell me about this insane and touching journey you both went through while spending time on tour and making the film. What were you expecting to be the outcome in terms of the film and what it would represent for each one of you? The film certainly is much introspective than just simply a film about a band.
Tom: It’s been so long ago now. I was working in few movies as a Pa, but mostly I was working at a TV station in Cincinnati as a tech person. I always wanted to make movies. I went to film school. Matt knew that this is what I wanted to do. We would talk movies all the time when we saw each other over the holidays. I hardly ever got to see him, but when I did we would talk about movies. I was stuck in a rot and feeling like I could live in Cincinnati, Ohio for the rest of my life or I could do something fun and kind of experience what he experiences, such as traveling around the world with a band.
I also knew that the band was getting bigger and I wanted to see that. I wanted to taste a little bit of his fame [Laughs]. He brought up this idea that I should come on tour and bring a camera, film some fun goofy stuff, and see what could come out of it. I hoped it would be something that I could use to further my career as videographer or to get a job maybe in NYC with some multimedia firm thanks to the fact that I had this little thing I made with The National. I didn’t know what it was going to be, but that was the idea, to get on my feet using their name or their kind of cloud as this cool indie rock band to get my foot in the door into some sort of job opportunity in NYC. At least that was my angle.
Matt: Mostly it was to give him a job and to get him out of Cincinnati for a while, but also because I missed him. A third of it was a charity thing, another third was that I missed him, and the last third was me thinking “Hey, maybe he could make something cool.” What I had thought he would make was not what he made in the end, but it wasn’t a fake job. I actually did believe he could make something cool and that together we could have fun trying to make, and we did. You don’t actually see much of us goofing around and having fun in the final product because it wasn’t that interesting to the real story.
What became the film was Tom struggling with his other job of being a roadie and struggling with the making of this project. Focusing on Tom’s struggle made for a much better film and not what we had originally set out to do. Originally we though of making a goofy film, almost like a Monkey’s movie or “A Hard Day’s Night,” a tour film that’s all wacky and silly, but all that stuff is just stupid.
My wife Carin Besser
, who edited the film alongside Tom, thought that stuff was kind of boring. She was looking at all the footage of when Tom started to go off the rails and said, “You don’t have a movie with that stuff.” But when she saw him drunk on the bus and the other humiliating things Tom went through, she was like, “That’s what I’m interested in!” I think we were already half way into that direction anyway and I thought, “Yes, let’s just throw everything out and let’s just focus the movie on what happened to you, not the band”
Tom: The National, the band members are super cool. I’ve known these guys long before they were in a band. I’ve known them throughout their careers and through many years of struggling. I knew whatever I would be filming wouldn’t be a real documentary about the band, because I don’t really listen to them. I’m a fan of them and I’m a fan of their success and I know they make music that’s very special to some people, but the music was never really important to me simply because it’s not my taste in music or my scene.
I didn’t really have any idea of what to make. I certainly didn’t want to dive into something like, “Matt, what’s your creative process?” I wouldn’t even know where to go from there, but what I was interested in was getting to know these guys behind the scenes and seeing them start get famous. I was very interesting in things like, “What’s it like to have all these people staring at you? And all these girls!” To me that’s awesome, and that’s what I think most people want to know, “What does it feel to be super famous to your group of fans?”
That was the most interesting part to me and that’s what I wanted to figure out. I wanted to try to make them feel embarrassed and get some real funny stuff. I kind of got that, there are some elements of that in the movie, but it became something else. Also I felt like I had to somewhat document myself like on the tour bus when I was getting drunk by myself.
Matt: [To Tom] You thought that would be funny
Tom: Yes, I thought that would be funny and I thought, “I’m the only one on this tour bus and I’m going to get wasted because that’s what people do on tour buses. The band is in their nice hotel sleeping and I’m the only one taking advantage of this tour bus”
Matt: [To Tom] And it was funny but not quiet in the way you thought it would be
Tom: No, it wasn’t funny at all
Matt: It was kind of depressing. That’s some of the most uncomfortable stuff to watch, which are the things that he thought would be kind of funny or cool.
Tom: When I filmed them I thought, “Let’s see how it plays” [Laughs]. “We’ll see if this is as fun as I think it is.”
Matt: [To Tom] There was a point where you were filming stuff and you were like “Oh, this is so awkward and terrible.” You would tell the other guys in the band to do something because you were trying to get “cool” stuff, but then you thought, “This is all going to be garbage.” Then early in the editing process you realized “Actually this stuff is funny! The stuff about me trying to make this other movie is actually what’s funny.” You recognized the comedy quickly. It didn’t take anybody else to show you what worked. Like when you made Bryce pick up the sunglasses, that’s funny.
Tom: There were a bunch of moments, that one included, where I thought” What kind of footage do I have of this band, The National. I don’t know if it’s any good or not but it’s weird and I kind of like it.” Early on I had shot my brother casually looking at the camera and though “He looks good there, he looks cool.” I looked at the footage and it was great. I thought” Wow, if I could get a moment like with every single guy in the band that’d be great. I don’t know where I’d used it but it’d be great”
Matt: [To Tom] Which one is the one of me?
Tom: It’s a shot I used in the “Terrible Love” music video. In that video there is a shot of Matt, which is very casual and it’s like four seconds long, but he looks like a rock star. I wanted to get everyone of them in a cool rock star pose. I wanted something like a moving portrait or a video portrait.
Aguilar: Tom, at what point did you look at all this footage and decided what you were going to do with it to make a meaningful film out of this experience?
Tom: We saw the footage where I shot these guys in “cool” poses and we realized they were awful and awkward [Laughs]. That’s when I started to think that I had failed to get what I wanted, I failed at making a cool movie. Instead I felt like I kind of took advantage of them, but I was also getting them in a real moment. They are trying to be rock stars but then you see how awkward they are. There is something underneath. They are these normal guys who happen to have an awesome job. That’s when we started trying to figure out how to piece together all this footage of me trying to make an awesome movie and failing at that, but at the same time capturing this journey to try to find myself and finish my project.
Aguilar: Making such a personal film, were there moments where it became to intimate to show? How difficult was it to look at this footage, which sometimes shows both of you in an unflattering way?
Matt: There were many times during the process when he was shooting stuff on tour and asking questions to which I would say, “Don’t use any of this.” At some point Bryan literally says, “Don’t use any of this interview,” and Tom laughs. It didn’t make into the film because it was too personal. There were also a lot of times that I just didn’t want him filming, but when the story started to come together and I saw some of he unflattering stuff, I was fine with it because I knew he was already putting so much unflattering stuff about himself in the film.
By the time they were actually creating something that was coming together, they had changed the focus and turned it inward towards Tom’s relationship with me. At that point all of these unflattering elements became relevant and interesting in the context of this new movie. I was Ok with it. The other guys
in the band, well, I didn’t tell them what was happening for a long time. I kept them in the dark about it. They were pretty much in the dark until they saw part of a rough cut at a screening that went badly. It’s the screening you see in the film where the screen goes blank. That was the first time anybody in the band had seen anything.
All they saw was about 10 minutes of awkward, weird, uncomfortable stuff and then the screen went blank, but they were laughing at that. They got it. They thought that stuff was cool. It was actually kind of a lucky thing that when Tom tried to screen it the band didn’t get to see very much because what they saw was the funny stuff. At that point they backed away and let Tom go ahead and finish it. If they had seen the whole thing I bet they would have jumped in and gotten more involved. Tom would have lost some control.
The finishing of it was like a cat-and-mouse game between what the movie really was and what the band thought it was. Even with me, Corine and Tom were not totally letting me understand that it was going to be about until they started getting close to something good.
Tom: It took a long time to make it what it is. In the first 6 months of working on it, when Matt didn’t know anything and it was only me trying to figure out what I had shot, that was when I noticed the awkwardness of some of the things that I did with the guys. Then I saw myself crying and getting drunk on the bus and I thought,“ I don’t know how this goes into a movie. “ I was still thinking it was going to be about the band.
For a long time that was the driving force, it had to be about the band with an undercurrent about the brother making this documentary and screwing up. Mainly it was all about he band, but slowly we showed it to a few friends and, with me being the room, Matt would ask them, “ How much of Tom do you want to see? Are you annoyed at Tom? Are you guys tired of seeing Tom or do you like seeing Tom?” And they would all say “We like seeing Tom.”
I thought, “Alright, they like seeing me. “ We thought that stuff with me was funny and somewhat dramatic and sad, and I didn’t know how to react to that. I also thought it was sad, but it was also my life. Still, I’m all about making a good movie and if people like that and people think that makes it a better movie then I’m all for it. I thought, “Ok, let’s take more of The National out and put more of the shit that I was going through in the movie.” It just became a better movie that way.
Aguilar: What have you learned about each other after looking at one another through this filter, the film? Tom as the one behind the camera and Matt as sort of the original subject for the documentary.
Matt: It’s been funny. Through the process of him being of tour making the film I learned a certain type of thing: I learned that I missed my brother and I learned that I liked having him around. Putting it in perspective, I also realized that when he was around while we where on tour I was much happier, even if you don’t see much of that in the film [Laughs]. I don’t like to tour. I like doing shows, but I don’t like being away from home. I don’t like to travel that much, and I get really lost. I get pretty weird in the head after 5 or 6 weeks traveling around on a bus, doing shows, and the anxiety of it all. Having Tom around kept me grounded and more connected to the things that are important. Having him around put this whole rock and roll thing in perspective, which is good for me.
Tom: [To Matt] Also, when the shows are not going on the two pairs of brothers in the band pair up and go out to do some shopping, or whatever brotherly things they do. But you don’t really have anybody to go with. It was fun for me because I had never been to Europe and I was able to go out with him, eat dinner, and see all these places I had never been to. It was also a great chance for him to get out of the hotel room occasionally.
Matt: The band is a crucible of creative tensions, and it was nice to be able to go out to dinner with Tom, just Tom and I, and let out all my frustrations with the tour or the shows, or even share my enthusiasm and happiness. It’s hard to do it sometimes with the band because we are in this thing together and it’s loaded with all kinds of other tensions. Therefore, having Tom around was a huge tension release, a relief valve that released a lot of the pressure.
Tom: I was so unaware of the band’s small talk, subtle innuendos, and the subtle ways a band rips each other apart.
Matt: [To Tom] They went totally over your head. You didn’t even know.
Tom : I didn’t know that things weren’t going well certain days. I’m kind of everybody’s friend because everyone knows that I have no idea what’s going on.
Matt: If there were some sort of tension going on in the bad for whatever reason Tom wouldn’t have any idea of what was going on. So he and I would go out to dinner and I’d be bitching about the show and he would say, “I though the show was awesome!” It would put it in perspective for me. “Why am I complaining?” [To Tom] You did that for everyone else, having you around just relieved all kinds of tension within the band, mostly because you were making everybody laugh.
Tom: I’m at 0 for 80 as far as The National shows I’ve seen and how always I get their reaction to the show wrong. Sometimes I’d say, “That was a good show,” and they’ll say, “No, that was a terrible show.” Then another time I’d say, “That was really bad show,” and they’ll be like “We all thought that was a great show.” My read of every show was different from the band’s reaction. I couldn’t understand it. When I felt the energy apparently nobody else did.
Matt: He always got it wrong. Or maybe you always got it right [Laughs]. Another thing that happened in the process of this whole thing is that I saw Tom’s talents that I didn’t actually know of. There are a lot of things that I would not do the way Tom does. He is a very different person from me. I saw how different he is from me….
Tom: Like how I drink my Margarita? [Laughs]
Matt: I saw how different he is from me, and how brilliant he is in some things. I think through the process of him being on tour and him living with us, I think Tom and I are starting to understand what we are good at and what the other person is good at. We are starting to respect each other in a different way. Our old dynamic of older successful brother and younger less successful brother, that cliché, has changed.
I was always trying to help him and give him guidance, and all that. At a certain point I was giving him guidance that was meant for me not for him. I started recognizing that he is on a different road than I am. I started to understand his road and I think he understood where I’m coming from. What has happened is that a lot of the animosity between us has dissolved. He still drives me crazy and I drive him crazy, but underneath all that he knows that what I do is good even if it’s not his type of thing. I know that the things that he does are good, we just do different types of things
Aguilar: Was making the film a cathartic experience? Do you guys now see each other more like different creative people, besides being brothers, thanks to this shared experience?
Tom : Making this film has helped me discover things that I’m good at. As far as how the movie works, how it plays, how funny it is, I have my own take on that. Making it
I did find some fun, comfort, and success. It was fun to see people liked the movie. That’s what I always wanted to do. With me being in my own movie so much, I didn’t know that it was going to be such a fun thing for people to watch me.
Matt: We know the movie is funny, and we knew what was funny about it when we were editing it, but there is a lot of therapy in there too. The movie is a lot about us working out problems. The editing of the movie was an extension of us trying to, not only look for what’s interesting about each other, but also finding what’s interesting about our relationship. Ultimately we wanted people to not be bored, and we wanted to tell a story that was meaningful and we kept coming back to our relationship and the complicated thorns that are in a real relationship between brothers or between anybody. This just happens to be about two brothers that are far apart in age.
Even if we had to show unflattering sides of each other that was what we were most interested in. My wife was definitely interested in the weird details of any relationship. Two human beings trying to understand each other, who love each other, but who also hate each other. How does that play out? All the most important things that happen in a human being’s life are usually the things that have to do with communicating with another human being. Everything revolves around that.
A person’s success - in terms of critical success or financial success - is pretty insignificant to a person’s happiness, but their relationships with themselves and people that are close to them that’s all that matters. The movie became about Tom’s search to understand his relationship with himself and with me. The process of making the film made me think about Tom differently than just being my little brother. He is another man in the world who has struggles. He is going to have to solve his struggles in a different way than I did mine.
Tom: My struggle is that this is not spicy tequila, it’s regular tequila [Laughs]
Aguilar: What was your parents' reaction to the film? It's clearly a film that revolves around your family more than the band.
Tom: Our parents
love it. My mom loved being in a movie.
Matt: When they both saw the whole thing for the first time we were at our house in Cincinnati, my dad had to get up and leave the room. I think both of them when into the next room and cried for about 20 minutes. My dad didn’t want to openly cry in front of us. He couldn’t talk on the way out.
Tom: We didn’t realize that we had such a family oriented movie on our hand until it was almost finished and our sister Rachel was a little bit bummed out because she was not in it.
Matt: She lives in Seattle and we had footage of her, and when the movie ended being so much about our family and my sister was not in it, she was bummed. There is a really funny piece of bonus material out there, which is an interview with her.
Tom: Our sister loves the movie, but she was little upset. She was like “I had some things to say too.” [Laughs]
Aguilar: The title "Mistaken for Strangers
" is of course from one The National’s songs, but how did you guys come to an agreement to name the film after this particular phrase? It's definitely very fitting.
Matt: We didn’t know what to call this thing and it had many, many names.
Tom: The firs title was a lyric from one of The National’s song, “Summer lovin’ torture party,” which I wasn’t so sure about.
Matt: I still like that title
Tom: I thought it was a mouthful. Our second idea was going to play the themes of me being a heavy metal fan trying to make a movie about an indie rock band, and it was going to be taken from the Acdc album “For Those About to Rock.” Our title was going to be “For Those About to Weep,” because The National is such a sadsack kind of band [Laughs]. I really liked that title.
Matt: Then, when the film was about to open the Tribeca Film Festival, the head of Tribeca said, “I love your movie, but the title ‘For Those About to Weep,’ I don’t know what that meas.” She didn’t know about the Acdc album. For Tom and I it made sense, that’s a household phrase “For Those About to Rock.” She didn’t understand our title, and she didn’t really know much about The National. It wasn’t funny to her because she wasn’t aware that we are known as a sad, depressing band.
That’s when we thought, “We don’t want only The National fans to like this movie.” So we were stuck, and this is the night before Tribeca’s press release was going to go out. They were asking, “What are you guys calling your movie? Because we are telling the world that we are opening our festival with it.” We were walking in circles thinking of what to call it. I said, “Let’s just call it ‘Lemonworld,’ that’s another thing that means nothing but is kind of mysterious”
Tom: It was going to be called “Lemonworld,” that night I was fine with that. The next morning - and this is the only time I went over anybody’s head - I called the band’s manager who was in talks with Tribeca. I said, “Wait, I don’t want my life to be called ‘Lemonworld,’ my life is not a lemmondworld!”
Matt: I had sent out an email to a bunch of trusted friends asking for suggestions since many of them had seen pieces of the film. Then my wife’s old work colleague in New York, his name is Willing Davidson who works as an editor at The New Yorker, wrote back saying, “I’ve always wonder why you guys aren’t calling this film ‘Mistaken for Strangers
,’ it just seems like a perfect title for your movie.”
Tom: I thought, “That’s it ‘Mistaken for Strangers
Matt: That was a leap of faith. We didn’t know if it would work, but I think it’s a good title. Willing Davidson than you!
Tom: You know how we were talking about The National being known as a sadsack, depressing band. I wanted to say that, though I’m not a big fan of their music, but the one thing I know is that they are not a sadsack, depressing band. They just write songs that may be deeper than those from a lot of other bands. The one think I knew going on tour was that Matt wanted a fun movie that played with their image, taking the piss out them, making fun of the fact that people think they are sad and depressing, and showing that they are not.
I didn’t want super serious The National film showing Matt writing lyrics in a serious pose because I know that’s not how he writes lyrics, he does it in the back getting drunk. [Laughs]. The last thing I wanted was a black and white, deep and serious indie rock movie. No, I thought, “Let’s make a fun movie.” Yes they write god songs and they play music that’s very meaningful to a lot of people, but they are also good guys. They are just normal dudes that are not always trying to be the super serious artist.
Aguilar: [To Tom] I know you are not a big fan of their music, but do you a have a favorite song by The National?
Tom: I think “Friend of Mine” was always kind of my favorite song from them. There are other good ones out there but I’ve always liked “Friend of mine.”
Aguilar: [To Matt] What’s your favorite film by Tom?
Matt: Definitely “Mistaken for Strangers
,” his other films are less good. [To Tom] I’m not saying they are bad…
Tom: [To Matt] I’m not saying they are good either, but I think they are interesting [Laughs]. The one I’m very proud is “Insane Animal Trapper.” I know they are very weird.
Matt: He’s also got a movie about Johnny Appleseed
. In “Mistaken for Strangers
” there is clip from Tom’s movie “Wages of Sin,” in that scene there is a guy who is tied to a rock and is hanging there dead. That guy is the star of Tom’s Johnny Appleseed
Tom: I think that all the movies I’ve made have always been weird ideas, granted I haven’t made many and most are shorts. Still, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never made a movie just to hop of a trend. I’ve never made a rip-off of “The Matrix” and I haven’t tried to make another “Usual Suspects,” like a lot of film students do. I want to make a Johnny Appleseed
Aguilar: [To Tom] Would you ever direct one The National's music videos?
Tom: Before I did this movie I directed the “Terrible Love” music video, the alternate version, and it’s all made up of tour footage.
Aguilar: How about a music video with more a narrative story?
Matt: There have been talks about Tom making a feature film based on a whole album by The National, sort of like Pink Floyd
’s “The Wall,” but that’s not going to happen because the band and I would have to have most of the creative control.
Tom: And I don’t want to have my brother breathing down my neck. [Laughs]
Aguilar: [To Tom] After this very particular filmmaking experience, what are you working on next? Another documentary?
Tom: I’m taking it slow. I’ve got a few things going with some friends that might involve some Internet content. I’m taking acting lessons while being a dishwasher. I’m trying to do my best to work in this industry. I’m definitely going more on the acting route, but I still would like to direct my own stuff. I’m not a documentarian, and I feel like that’s how people see me right now - if they see me as anything that's probably what they see me as. People might think, “What other band is Tom going to follow now?” But I think that boat has sailed. I’m trying to figure out what's next.
Aguilar: [To Matt] I know you just finished touring with The National last week, are you taking a break now or working on a followup to Trouble Will Find Me
Matt: I think we are all recalibrating. We hadn’t been actively on tour, but the last show of the tour just happened last week in London. I think everybody is trying to fix the rest of their lives, but everybody is really happy. We are getting along better than we ever have. I think this is because it’s gone well for us and because almost everybody has a family now. Family puts everything into perspective so that we realize how great we have it and how lucky we are to be where we are. Any petty resentments, anxieties, problems or tensions within the band pale in comparison to the big picture. This is the first time in along time we’ve been in that spot. We are going to start working on a new record, we sort of already are.
Aguilar: Certainly, with both with film and music, after you make something successful people have high expectations for the followup .
Mat: It’s a great problem to have. We’ve done stuff that people really think is good and now we have to do more! [Laughs]. People anticipating and having high expectations is a great problem to have, and we do have that problem. The National is not going to make another record like the ones we’ve made before, so it might take longer. [To Tom] You don’t want to make another documentary, but you also want to do something different.
Tom: It will definitely be something different, and not necessarily what people expect.
"Mistaken for Strangers
" will have a one-week run at the Laemmle's Music Hall
starting today December 5th. Tom and Matt Berninger
will be there for a Q&A following the film tonight Friday Dec. 5 and tomorrow Saturday Dec 6 after the after the 7:10 and 9:30 shows.