'Mistaken for Strangers': The National's Documentary Becomes a Tale of Two Brothers

After Tom Berninger was fired from The National's tour by his brother, lead singer Matt Berninger, he kept the camera rolling. 

Matt Berninger, Tom Berninger. Credit: Carin BesserMatt Berninger, Tom Berninger. Credit: Carin BesserWith more than one million albums sold, a recent Grammy nomination, and an upcoming record, indie rock group The National is having a moment—a long-deserved one more than twenty years in the making. Which is why it’s surprising that their first documentary isn’t a tribute to the band’s success or a chronicle of their rise to it, but instead an in-depth look at the failures of someone who’s not in the group at all. Mistaken for Strangers stars Tom Berninger, the overlooked brother of lead singer Matt Berninger, and focuses on Tom’s short-lived stint working as a tour roadie with a literal band of brothers—there are two sets of siblings already in The National—and more largely on the emotional impact of a lifetime spent in his older brother’s shadow. The intimate film takes every opportunity to expose the honest, and oftentimes unflattering, sides of Tom and Matt, tearful breakdowns, drunken rants and all, and offers a compelling exploration of brothers struggling to reconcile their differences.

Given the doc’s raw content, Mistaken would potentially be a massive PR mistake if the movie weren’t so charming and sincere, which is why it was selected to kick off last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Just before opening on VOD and to theaters nationwide, we spoke with the Berningers on the perils of mixing business with family.

Get In Media: Tom, at what point in making this film did you realize that it was a film about your relationship with your brother instead of being about the band?

Tom Berninger: It was definitely in the editing process when we were putting the story together. Carin Besser, my brother’s wife who was a producer on the thing and also co-editor, she was sitting behind me and she really wanted to see everything I had of myself. I kind of said, “Well, I have me drunk on the bus and it’s not very good,” and she was like, “Let me see it.” She loved it. It was so awful and uncomfortable and really sad that she felt like this was a great thing to have in the movie. I was reluctant at first but I was convinced that my goofy stuff, the things I did by myself alone on the bus maybe with too many shots of whisky in me, were maybe some of the best stuff I had. There are other moments like me crying in the editing process, me just kind of losing it over the amount of pressure I was under and putting the camera on myself. Even though that was half an hour of me crying, we only used eight seconds of it, but that’s the stuff that she convinced me was what the movie was about.

GIM: The film is very intimate and revealing in terms of emotions. Did either of you have any trepidation about being that vulnerable on film?

TB: The closer it got to the finished product and the more it became my story and the more movie time my face in front of the camera, I got really scared. I definitely felt like this movie was not the way I wanted to make a stand in the industry. I felt like this movie kind of took over my life and now that I’m on camera so much I just felt like this has to be good or else I’m going to lose it.

Matt Berninger: When Tom first came on tour, nobody in the band, including myself, thought he was actually going to make a documentary. He was hired as a roadie and I encouraged him to bring his camera, mostly just so that he might have something that we could use on our website. But then when he got fired, I felt bad for what had happened. I didn’t want him to go back to Cincinnati. I wanted him to make something out of this footage. When he said he was going to try to actually make a full documentary, everybody in the band got a little nervous because we knew the kind of garbage that Tom had and the kind of humiliating or unflattering stuff that Tom was in the room for, literally in the bathroom for some times. Everybody in the band, including me, was anxious and nervous about it, mostly because we didn’t want to have to tell Tom, “No. Whatever you make, we’re going to bury.” It was a huge relief to see how much unflattering, vulnerable stuff of him he was putting in there and that the movie became as much about him as it is anything about the band. … We thought that was a more interesting and more significant thing than a profile of a band on tour.

Tom films the band backstage before a show

GIM: Did Matt have any say in the editing process?

TB: Not at first, no. In fact, I and Carin, who helped me edit, we kind of kept it to ourselves for a long time and finally Matt came in and saw it and saw what we were doing and there was a big weight lifted off his shoulders. He encouraged me to finish this thing and gave me all the confidence in the world that I needed to put myself out there and not be afraid to let people in on my personal failures. But for quite a long time, the band had no idea what I was doing because I didn’t know what I was doing.  

GIM: Matt, your tour manager had trepidation about hiring Tom to be on the road crew in the first place. With this documentary coming and with it being so emotionally charged, did anyone from your touring or management teams have an issue with it?

MB: Our manager, Dawn [Barger], was very nervous about what it was going to be. Brandon Reid, who is our tour manager who Tom essentially was hired to work for as his assistant, who had to fire Tom because, frankly, Tom wasn’t very good at that, he was totally, totally behind Tom telling the story. The truth is Brandon comes across as more of a villain in the movie than he is in reality. He and Tom are actually really close and I will say that Brandon has been the one that has been totally championing the movie coming out. Even though he looks like not the most sympathetic character in it, literally this week he’s the one making sure that the whole premiere here at the Shrine in LA and the whole opening is going to go smoothly. He’s been a protector of Tom and this movie. Pretty much after he fired Tom from the role of assistant tour manager, Brandon got totally behind Tom and supportive of whatever movie he wanted to make. It’s been an interesting thing. We’ve got a team with a lot of faith in this kind of stuff. Everybody’s been really behind it.

Tom and Matt

GIM: For both of you, do you have any advice for documentary filmmakers who are making movies about subjects that they are particularly close to?

TB: Watch a lot of YouTube. That’s what I do, and watch the little guys, the guys that only have like 2,000 followers and yet they pour their guts out. They might live somewhere up in deep Canada and they have their little core followers and they pour their hearts out and you kind of get little snippets of their life. They make little docs every day. Those guys gave me encouragement to be very personal with this thing…

MB: This is something my wife, Carin, says a lot. She was an editor at the The New Yorker and she’s always said that things are bad and they stay bad and they’re bad again and you work on them and they’re still bad until they’re not bad anymore. I think for whatever you’re doing, no matter what you’re trying to do, the process of trying and failing, those are all steps forward. Our band figured that out. We failed a lot for the first several years and nobody came to see us. We learned a lot of things about that. Our skin got thicker. The most important thing if you’re trying to do anything is be persistent and also just don’t be afraid of failing because you’re going to figure out a lot of stuff from those failures. Also, be patient. It takes a long time for things to be good, but just don’t lose faith, don’t give up, and be patient with it.

Tom Berninger

GIM: Is there anything about this project that you would do differently if you had to go back and do this again?
MB: We would never go back and do this again, either of us. The thing we would do differently is not do it.

TB: That’s not true. Now that we’ve done it, we’re so happy that so many things went wrong. I don’t know. If I had to go back and do it again, I’d probably make it Slayer or Iron Maiden or Judas Priest and not The National, but everything else would remain the same.

GIM: How has this project impacted your relationship?

MB: We don’t talk anymore. It’s over [laughs]. Weirdly, our relationship, we’ve always been close even though I’m nine years older and then I went off to college and then to New York when he was a little kid and we didn’t see a whole lot of each other, but we talked on the phone a lot. When he came on tour and was living on the bus and living in the hotel rooms, we became closer, but then it also got really toxic at times. Then he moved in with my wife and daughter and I and that was both a very good thing but also it had an underside to it that got really, really rough.

I think throughout the process of this thing, I think we started to just understand each other better and respect each other, respect our differences. Tom and I are very different types of people in some respects; we’re exactly the same in a lot of other respects, and I think we stop playing these roles of older brother/little brother. We’re just brothers now. We’re just peers and adults that swim in the world in different styles.

TB: Exactly what my brother said. I saw that what my brother does is not just luck or not just good decisions versus bad decisions. He made all the good decisions; I made all the bad decisions. He worked really hard. If he makes a bad decision, he doesn’t dwell on it. He just moves on and puts on a good show every night. He doesn’t compare himself. He has taught me to be much more adult about it and grow a thick skin. I taught him to appreciate a good metal riff once in a while.

GIM: Matt, at several points in the film, you told Tom to stop filming. What convinced you to go on with the project?

MB: I told Tom to stop filming 1,000 times when he was on tour with us. It was only because sometimes I didn’t think he had a direction or plan for the movie and oftentimes I’m just stressed out and I was cranky. I’m really glad he didn’t stop filming, though, because it’s hard when you’re in an angry state or exhausted [or in] an uncomfortable, unflattering state, it’s hard to have somebody with a camera on, but Tom was actually doing that to himself. He was actually keeping the camera on himself when he was angry or he was depressed or drunk. He left the camera on himself, so ultimately I was like I’m the one who invited him. I’m the one who told him to bring a camera. I shouldn’t be telling him to turn the thing off and I’m glad he didn’t.

Mistaken for Strangers opens theatrically and on demand March 28.

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