Mistaken For Strangers: The rock documentary that became Tom Berninger's personal journey
The Berningers are a talented family: Tom Berninger is a filmmaker, and when his brother Matt, a member of the Brooklyn-based band The National, asked him to go on tour as a roadie, he obliged. Tom needed a job and some direction, and his brother's request inadvertently offered both. Tom was fired eight months in, but he'd been filming the band and crew the whole time. The result was 2013's Mistaken For Strangers, a documentary about The National -- but also a look at Tom's own personal struggle for success.
The National's Matt Berninger and his brother, roadie Tom Berninger, in Mistaken For Strangers.
In advance of the film's opening this Friday, April 18 at the Sie FilmCenter -- where Tom Berninger will be a guest for both evening showings -- Westword spoke with him about his relationship with his brother and the things that make a good rock documentary.
Westword: The film is really wonderful, but I have to admit: I had never really listened to The National before seeing it. However, it made me want to listen to them.
Tom Berninger: To me, that's always the best compliment I get -- people come up to me and say things like, "I just came here because my girlfriend told me to come see this movie, but I really liked it." That's the best compliment, when they don't know the band -- or especially if they don't even like my brother's band -- but they like the movie. (Laughs)
It's interesting to meet a band through their personalities -- and through your eyes -- before getting to know them through their music.
That's what I strived to do; I was always worried that fans would want to get to know the guys more -- and some people have expressed that -- but I felt like what I did do with this movie is get a sense of who they are as people, instead of just talking about their music the whole time. I hope that you could get sense of who each band member is.
When your brother invited you to go on this tour as a roadie, did you plan on making a documentary? I know you are a filmmaker, but was that part of your original intent in taking him up on the offer?
No. Absolutely not. I needed a job, and my brother was willing to give me a job. Also, all I was going on tour to do was be a roadie. I was really interested in becoming a videographer and shooting small little videos for their website while I was on tour as a roadie -- kind of like a video diary that they could put on their website as a "fan extra."
It was exciting for me because I thought I could use it as a jump-off point to maybe becoming a videographer for websites. Really, I had 100 percent no clue that this would turn into a movie. It was only for the website, if anything, and for me to jumpstart my film career again by using their big name and their fan base as a way to hopefully do other cool things, you know?
When I think about being a super-fan of a band, it isn't the videos or interviews that I like to see -- it's the candid moments where a band is just being themselves. This is like an entire movie of that.
When we started talking about it becoming more than the little goofy web stuff and I started toying with the idea of it becoming more of a movie it was late, late, late in the tour, while I was editing. You know, I'm always afraid to meet my idols -- I've never really wanted to meet or interview a band that I like and respect. I'm always afraid that they are not going to be cool or they're going to be jerks or something like that. The National gets a bum rap -- I mean, they play deeper, darker music and have a darker edge, so they get stereotyped as being this depressing indie rock band.
But the guys couldn't be more opposite of that -- I really wanted to show them as lighthearted, fun guys. I wanted to deflate their weird image of the brooding indie rock hipsters, by kind of making fun of them. Not making fun of the music, but making fun of the whole idea of celebrity and the cool indie rock hipster. These guys are actually very nice, down-to-earth guys.