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Mistaken For Strangers

Behind-the-scenes brotherly love in Tom Berninger's unscripted documentary about indie rock band The National

by Karen Day in Culture on 25 March 2014

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The National is a band of brothers. Twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner both play guitar and piano, while siblings Scott and Bryan Devendorf play bass and drums, respectively. Lead singer Matt Berninger is technically the fraternal outlier, but his friendships with the other members span decades and a shared hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, where until more recently you would find Berninger’s own brother, Tom. Interested in horror and action flicks, Tom was studying at film school in Montana while his older brother Matt was beginning to make it big with the band in New York. By the time the band was ready to embark on a 22-month world tour for High Violet, Tom was back home living in his parents' basement and Matt decided his brother needed a little push.

Matt asked Tom to become their assistant tour manager, which Tom tells us "was probably the best job that’s ever been offered to me." But Tom also saw this as a filmmaking opportunity: "We both thought it might be fun to bring a camera along and see if I could use their fame to make little videos and put it in my reel or my portfolio, and get a job once the tour was over. Or maybe become a roadie, you know." The road wasn't always easy for Tom; the band had to deal with his "allergy" on a few occasions, which seemed to mostly flare up around booze, and he often worried more about getting the shot than getting the band their pre-show bottles of water or other necessities an assistant tour manager is assigned to look after. But the upshot of his creative dedication is "Mistaken For Strangers," a 75-minute documentary hitting theaters and On Demand this Friday, 28 March 2014. To glean more insight into this emotionally uplifting film, see our interview with Matt and Tom Berninger below.

Was this an experiment for you, Tom?

It was definitely a weird experiment in the beginning. I set out to kind of have fun with the guys; play with their images and kind of scrub them down a bit and make little goofball movies. I would like to categorize it as experimental, maybe other people would categorize it as, “I had no idea what the hell I was doing.” But if anything, if we were doing a documentary I was hoping it would be an interesting documentary. For the longest time, almost the entire tour, I had no idea that I was going to be making a movie. I just knew I had a mess of footage with some interesting enough stuff in it that somehow I had to put together.

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Matt, in “Mistaken For Strangers” it seems like not only are you the older brother to Tom, but you serve that role for the entire band.

I wouldn’t say that. I would say, I definitely am to Tom, and when it comes to the band, I am the oldest one in the band. If anything, they always treat me as the father figure but, more of like a Chevy Chase in “Vacation” sort of father figure. The sort of father figure who doesn’t know what he’s doing half the time. And they’re probably right. But in terms of Tom, I was definitely very much an older brother but through the process of the movie I started thinking, “Tom and I need to stop being in these roles of older brother/younger brother and be more of just, peers. In the same boat together but just different adults instead of that brother dynamic."

Do you think you two share a bond in wanting to tell a story? Tom, you through film and Matt through music.

Matt: I think both of us have an idea of the types of things we like. The movie represents Tom as sort of being like a heavy metal guy, and a horror movie guy and he doesn’t care about indie rock and all that kind of stuff. But the truth is, Tom and I bonded over movies like “The Graduate,” you know. Also “Predator” and “Terminator.” But I think both of us—I don’t want to speak for Tom—but his favorite filmmakers are Sam Rany and horror movie guys, John Carpenter, but also Alexander Payne. So, the people that are kind of telling the stories about real normal people with all kinds of flaws are always both of our favorite things. That comes into our music a lot. I like to write songs about the awkward little details of being a human being and most of them are always my own little issues and insecurities. And so I think Tom has the same kind of appreciation for that.

Tom: Yeah, I think Matt and I bond mainly over comedies. But music no, we don’t bond over music whatsoever. But my brother was the first guy to show me “Predator” and “Alien” and “Terminator” and I grew up on all those ‘80s sci-fi action movies. I took it to the next degree and went to “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Halloween” and that’s where my brother stopped. And he kind of went toward “The Graduate” and I was kind of like, eh.

Matt: Tom, you just negated everything I just said. Isn’t Alexander Payne one of your favorites?
Tom: Of course! Yeah, I was getting there.

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Was this experience anything like being on vacation as kids?

Tom: Yes.
Matt: No.

Tom: It was fun half the time and then, an incredible amount of arguing and throwing stuff at each other.
Matt: Tom definitely was hoping it was going to be more of a vacation than it actually was. All of us, we’ve done it before we know it’s not a vacation, we know it’s actually tons of really hard work. For a lot of the time, Tom was thinking of it as a vacation and I think that may be what led to the demise of his role as an assistant tour manager. But then in another way, he and I went out walking around Belgium and Paris together and that made it—I had more fun on that tour than I have in a long time touring, because he was there and he made it more fun for sure.

Matt what did you learn from watching Tom’s documentary?

I learned that I should relax and not get so wound up and to control my temper a little bit. I think I also learned that Tom has his own, very different, sort of creative angle and he’s got an incredible gift and perception in the way he looks at the world and interacts with the world, that I’ve learned to appreciate instead of trying to get Tom to be more buttoned up, by watching the movie there’s something about Tom’s approach to the world that I’ve learned to respect more. We sort of respect our differences and also how similar we are, but also that we both just swim in the world in slightly different ways. And that’s cool.

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Tom, beyond the daily struggles, what was the biggest creative hurdle you had to overcome during this project?

All of it was hard but all of it was really fun. I learned a lot. I think the hardest thing is whatever’s coming next. I can’t believe I made a movie and the editing process was almost impossible and you need help and you learn that you always need help and you always want to get other feedback. I mean it was hard. It was a learning process. But the hardest thing is what’s going to happen after this, what am I going to do? I have ideas.

What is next for you Tom?

With me being on camera so much, people have come up to me and said that I’m a lot of fun to watch, or they relate to me. So I think I’m going to try acting and improv or something. And we’re going to film it.

Images courtesy of Mistaken For Strangers

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