Matt & Tom Berninger on The National’s Doc ‘Mistaken for Strangers’
On the opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival, festival co-founder Robert De Niro and his wife, Grace Hightower, stepped onto the red carpet, almost instantly obscured by a noisy mass of photographers. Less than 15 feet down the same carpet, in a fitted suit and clear-rimmed glasses, and with fewer cameras around him, stood Matt Berninger, lead singer for one of indie rock’s most respected bands, The National. Bemused, two journalists behind me wondered aloud “what this guy is doing here.” One commented that he had “never heard of ’em.”
A little way off was Tom Berninger, Matt’s younger brother. Vaguely Philip Seymour Hoffman-esque in appearance, Tom is a slacker type familiar to many: he’s a 33-year-old metalhead who lives at home with his parents and somehow never quite manages to finish what he starts. Tom is also the reason the band was there. Though his previous director credits were mainly homemade slasher flicks—one revolved around a murderous rampage-prone barbarian with an identity crisis—Tom’s new “self-mockumentary,” Mistaken for Strangers, was selected as the opener for this year’s festival. He was as flabbergasted as the journalists behind me were.
“This is not the way I thought I’d break into the industry,” he says a week later at New York’s Hilton Midtown hotel. Matt, also present, adds that suddenly Tom “was fighting with Liza Minnelli for screen time.”
Mistaken for Strangers, shot entirely on Tom’s handheld Canon Vixia, is the unintended byproduct of Tom’s time as a roadie during The National’s yearlong international tour for their 2010 album, High Violet. Instead of a traditional, behind-the-music rock-doc, though, the film explores the dynamics between Matt, a beloved and hugely successful rock star, and his less accomplished, directionless younger brother. The result is a genuinely funny and sincere portrait of one family’s black sheep that rightfully scored high critical marks upon its debut.
As for Tom’s stint as assistant tour manager, however, all parties involved now admit that he was useless at the job, though Matt’s intentions in hiring him were good: “For me, the goal was to reconnect with him,” the elder Berninger says. “I went off to college when he was 9 and we hadn’t really spent that much time together.”
But, as Tom says, “I didn’t know how to set up a drum kit, I didn’t know how to tune a guitar, and I’m not that good with counting euros.”
“And he’s horrible with Toblerone bars,” adds Matt, referencing a scene in the film where Tom fails the simple task of getting the band some chocolate. Water bottles, towels, and guest lists—Werner Herzog was kept waiting outside a National show in L.A. because Tom forgot the list—also gradually fell by the wayside as the younger Berninger became absorbed in his self-assigned cameraman duties.
Needless to say, Tom was fired.
“I definitely kind of checked out of my crew duties—I mean, I still did ’em, but I knew I had to make something of a movie here,” Tom says. “I thought I was doing a better job [as a roadie] than I was—I thought it was fine! It kind of came out of nowhere that I was gonna be let go.”
Jobless again but with more than 200 hours of footage on his hands, Tom found that he hadn’t really captured the fun rock ‘n’ roll party tour he had hoped for. Instead he had hours of video of disciplined musicians taking their jobs seriously. That is, his movie would have been dreadfully boring.
Matt’s wife, former New Yorker fiction editor Carin Besser, poses the problem thus: “How do you make a story about a band if they haven’t been dropped by their label and no one’s in the grips of an evil addiction? There wasn’t a lot of drama with the band,” she says. “Tom would always joke that he came back with a lot of footage of guys on laptops.”
After being taken in by Matt and Carin at their home in Brooklyn, Tom decided to focus instead on the times he had turned the camera on himself—and the compelling portrait of brotherhood in Mistaken for Strangers was born.
The way Matt and Tom’s relationship is portrayed in the film is the same way it feels in person. Though Matt can sometimes appear dismissive of his younger brother’s struggles, he clearly loves his brother. “In the 10 years that we’ve been touring as a band, the other guys have had their brothers around and I did feel sort of lonely, like the odd guy out,” says Matt. (The National is made up of two sets of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf, and Matt.) “I would often call Tom from [a tour stop in] Germany, behind a backstage tent at a festival—literally, I remember many times hiding in the dark, leaning against some sort of fence, probably a little drunk and really depressed, calling him.”
“I could tell you missed me more than I missed you,” Tom says, deadpan. “I was in college!”
Matt: “He’d be like, [unenthused voice] ‘Hi.’”
Still, Tom’s unhappiness with his perceived inadequacies, especially in comparison to his brother’s success, shows throughout the movie. In one scene, an emotional and slightly tipsy Tom tells the camera, “Having Matt as an older brother sucks because he’s a rock star and I’m not.” Asked if he was aware of the way Tom saw him as the family’s “golden boy” who has always been great at everything he does, Matt concedes he did but that his brother has “never been too much of a jealous guy.” Still, he could have been a little nicer.
“[He’s] not a fan of indie rock, and it’s not like [he’s] even that big a fan of the band,” says Matt. “But I was not easy on him. What I thought was being encouraging was sometimes maybe brow-beating and overbearing, and just being hard on you, and you often thought, ‘Well it’s easy for you because you’ve been so successful.’”
“I would get down and depressed because I had this creative feeling that I wanted to make something, but I felt like I wouldn’t do it, or I wouldn’t start, or I’d quit doing it because it was hard for me to express myself,” says Tom. “You know, I made a Johnny Appleseed movie and I finished it and I put it on DVD for my friends, but I didn’t push it at festivals. It wasn’t quite right, I never promoted it. I guess I never found the right creative outlet. And [Matt] would always be like, ‘Persevere!’ Because you hit it, somehow.”
Matt fiercely disagrees with the notion that The National just “hit it” one day. The band has had a notoriously slow-burn rise to the top of the indie-rock world, culminating in High Violet’s debut at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart and the band’s supporting performances for Barack Obama at several campaign stops in 2008 and 2012. (Their next album, Trouble Will Find Me, is out on May 21.) Instead, Matt insists that “you have to kind of carve success out of stone with your bare hands.”
“If you look at our career as a band, it’s like failure, failure, failure, a little blip of success, more failure, another little blip of success, and you just keep trying to stack those bits of success together and find your way through that...Like, our first records are bad.”
Everyone in the room erupts at the notion of the band’s eponymous 2001 debut being “bad,” so Matt corrects himself. “They’re not bad, but we’ve become a better band. Our first record is not that good.” Then, addressing Tom, “And your first movies are not that good.”
Tom pauses in disbelief for a moment before turning to me. “See what I’m saying? I like my second movie.”
The banter is (mostly) just playful. At Mistaken for Strangers’ premiere after-party, Matt and the rest of The National put on a special performance at New York’s High Line Ballroom, where the elder Berninger dedicated two songs to his little brother. After leaping off the stage in the middle of the last song, Matt wound through the audience until he found Tom. Together, they turned the chorus of “Terrible Love” into a duet.
As for Tom, he knows what’s next for him: more film. “I still wanna make narratives, I still wanna figure out my Johnny Appleseed story in a better way,” he says. “Everything’s happened really fast, and I’m still trying to take it all in and figure it out. I can’t be happier. This is amazing. But definitely something will come of this.”