Self-doubt, loneliness, feelings of inadequacy giving way to anguished triumph—if Mistaken For Strangers weren’t a documentary about The National, it could just as easily be one of their songs. (Technically it is; the title was borrowed from the second track of their 2007 LP, Boxer.) Given the subject, this chronicle of the indie-rock band’s recent world tour was never going to be another fly-on-the-wall portrait of breakthrough success, or a lame pastiche of concert footage intended solely for the most hardcore fans. But it’s even more unusual than the band’s fans might have expected.
As The National’s lead singer, Matt Berninger sold out Radio City Music Hall and performed for President Obama at campaign rallies during the 2010 midterm elections. As the younger brother of The National’s lead singer, Tom Berninger has watched his family’s golden child become a genuine rock star. A softhearted metalhead goofball who still lives with his parents in Cincinnati, Tom seems like a calculated genetic response to his severe, precise, but similarly affable big brother. When The National was gearing up for its 2010 tour, which bounced from Paris to Los Angeles and everywhere in between, Matt asked Tom to come along as a roadie. At the time, neither of them had any idea that the footage Tom shot along the way could eventually be cobbled together into the film that the younger brothers of the world have been waiting for.
A warm, curiously self-reflexive, and surprisingly moving film that never limits itself to the band’s following (Tom isn’t a big National fan), Mistaken For Strangers is the rare tour documentary that actually goes behind the music. The Dissolve spoke to the Berninger brothers about the movie’s strange creation, putting their family life on film, and why Werner Herzog wanted to drop the band onto an erupting volcano.
The Dissolve: Tom, you were hoping to use the band as a platform to show the world that you’re a good shooter and a creative force in your own right, but was there a particular moment during the process when you realized that this film could be something more?
Tom Berninger: I had my friends come in town and shoot me carrying water bottles and doing chores and pretty much doing my roadie job, and I knew that it would flesh out what tour life is all about. But honestly, when I was alone on the bus and I was really drunk and having a lot of fun listening to heavy-metal Christmas songs one particular night, I picked up my camera because I thought, “I’m on a tour bus, people would expect drunken debauchery on a tour bus.” So I did it myself. Everyone else had their own hotel rooms, and I opted to stay on the bus and drink all their beer and film myself.
At the time, I thought that was a really funny thing, that I was being really funny on film, and that it was really interesting stuff, that it was the filmmaker getting to live the dream. But when I eventually saw the footage in my sober moments, especially later, considering what happened to me on tour, I just found it very depressing, me getting that drunk. That was one thing. The other big moment was when I filmed the guys sleeping, I really felt like just being on a tour bus, and that image where they’re all sleeping on these bunks, it looks like coffins, and I really liked that image. I wanted to shoot The National all dead, in a way.
The Dissolve: Did that image connect you to your horror-movie roots? Did it make you think, “Oh shit, I could still be a real filmmaker”?
Tom Berninger: Yeah, it did. It was something I found weird and cool. I feel like a lot of people have a fear of being buried alive, and the beds on the tour bus have this frill all over them, and these little curtains you can pull back, and it’s very morbid. And I felt like, “This is a cool image. I’m not sure how I’m going to use it, but this is a cool image.”
The Dissolve: Matt, what inspired you to ask Tom to be a roadie for The National in the first place? Was it the guilt of not being there as an older brother? Or was it pity? Or did you think the experience might help you guys rediscover each other as adults?
Matt Berninger: Yeah, maybe it was a combination of guilt and pity. But mostly, I just missed him. I went off to college when he was a little kid, he was 9 years old, and I went to New York after that, so the whole time he was growing up—we weren’t estranged, but I was not there much. And all the other guys in the band have their brothers on tour, and I saw how nice it was for them, and I envied that. So when Tom was back from college, and he was between jobs and in a tough spot, and we were about to go on tour, I just thought, “Well, come with us. Come with me on tour, and you can have this job.” And so I talked our team and our tour manager into hiring him as this roadie, as the assistant tour manager, which was actually probably a mistake, because it’s a really hard job. He just doesn’t have the personality for that, and neither do I. You’ve gotta be so buttoned-up, and be the kind of person who can keep 25 plates spinning.
But I hired him for that anyway, and mostly because I missed him. And I loved having him around, for the most part, but then things went south for whatever reason, because touring is weird and hard, and there are a lot of temptations. And Tom kind of wanted to have the Mötley Crüe experience, but we’re not Mötley Crüe, so Tom was kind of liking bringing the Mötley Crüe to the thing himself. I put Brandon, our tour manager, in a really tough position too, so when Tom got fired, I respected Brandon’s decision. I knew Tom had shot tons and tons of stuff, most of which was probably useless and humiliating for both of us, but I wanted him to get something out of it. I never expected it to be what it has turned into, and I’m so happy. My wife jumped in, and the two of them crafted this thing that’s much more interesting to me and to the band than any profile ever could be.
The Dissolve: Brandon comes off as the closest thing the film has to a villain, but at the same time, he also comes off as a really great tour manager.
Matt Berninger: And Tom would say this, that he and Brandon are actually really, really close. Tom always says, “My movie needs a Darth Vader,” and he told Brandon before, he was like, “I just have to let you know that you’re our Darth Vader, and I’m sorry.”
The Dissolve: There’s a scene early in the film when the tour has just begun, and you’re in your hotel room in Paris, and Matt, you tell Tom you’re really glad he’s there. It seems like such a little thing, but that kind of sincerity can be hard between brothers. Have you guys always had such an expressive relationship? Were you surprised by how your dynamic developed on tour?
Matt Berninger: Yeah, I think the truth is that my parents and my sister—
Tom Berninger: They’re my family, too.
Matt Berninger: Yeah, I know, I’m just saying that we have the kind of parents where, no matter how awkward your problem was, you could talk to your parent about anything. So I guess our family has always been open about talking about the awkward anxieties of being a human being, and we’re not too guarded with each other about that stuff. The other thing is that he’s nine years younger, and I knew how hard it was to be a kid growing up, so I was always trying to give him confidence and tell him it was okay to be different, that it was okay to be a weirdo and kind of lost. Here he was as a 31-year-old and I saw him, at that point, as his own worst enemy. He lost confidence in himself, and he would quit a lot of things. [To Tom.] You know, like Mom talks about in the movie. The thing I realized is that even with failure, you just have to keep moving forward, and not let the failures stop you. And Tom was letting some small failures take the wind out of his sails.
The Dissolve: Tom, the editing process eventually becomes part of the subject of the film. The snippets we see from the amateur horror films you made back in your film-school days are played for laughs, but they actually look good. It’s clear from the footage that you have a solid grasp of the fundamentals, at the very least. In Mistaken For Strangers, did you consciously undersell your talents and skills in order to create a more relatable character for yourself?
Tom Berninger: Well, we cut for comedy, and in the editing process, I knew the movie was going to be much more about me, and I knew the band was waiting for something, and I was having a really tough time with it. And I had a breakdown and I filmed myself crying, and there was a weird moment where I was at my computer and I felt like, “I’m going to cry. I have no idea what’s going on, this movie is out of control, I don’t have any clear sense of what’s happening with this thing except that I’m in it more, and I’m about to cry, and I feel like I should put the camera on myself.” That’s sort of the weird nature of how the movie got made, like, “All right, I’m pressing record, let’s sit back and watch the tears come out.” I cried for half an hour, and we only used eight seconds of it. It’s me, I don’t think I undersold myself necessarily.
Matt Berninger: Talk about Wages Of Sin.
Tom Berninger: Oh yeah, Wages Of Sin. Wages Of Sin was my barbarian movie, and the one I did before that was called The Dirt Under His Nails. They are early attempts… There’s good stuff about them, and there’s some really bad stuff about them.
The Dissolve: Is there any chance that you’ll put them on the Mistaken For Strangers DVD?
Tom Berninger: There’s a good chance we’ll put one of them on the DVD.
Matt Berninger: He’s also got a love story about Johnny Appleseed.
Tom Berninger: Yeah.
Matt Berninger: How long is that?
Tom Berninger: That’s a half-hour long. My Johnny Appleseed movie was the last thing I made. That was in like 2004, and then after that, I fell off a cliff.
Matt Berninger: His Johnny Appleseed movie is really good, but it’s mostly just him smoking pot on his friend’s yard.
The Dissolve: I’d watch half an hour of that.
Tom Berninger: It’s half an hour long, but it feels like it’s two hours long.
The Dissolve: So what do you talk to Werner Herzog about at the after-party of a National show? Tom, could you resist the temptation to ask him for any documentary tips? I’d have to imagine you’re a big fan of Klaus Kinski at the very least.
Tom Berninger: Yeah, my barbarian movie was totally inspired by… I went to film school in Montana, and Aguirre, The Wrath Of God and Fitzcarraldo were huge inspirations for me, and also Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest For Fire and things like that. So when Werner Herzog showed up, I was so nervous. I was like, changing the ice in the cooler and he walked in the room, and he was very nice, he immediately came up to me, and I have like garbage bags over my shoulder, and he’s like [Werner Herzog impression], “Hello, I’m Werner.” And he shakes my hand. And then he goes, “Where is your restroom?” And I directed him to where he could take a leak, and that was the only thing I really said to him. But Matt? I dunno.
Matt Berninger: I talked to him a bunch, and he was really just a sweet, charming, generous guy with ideas and stuff. And we were talking about maybe doing a video, he wanted to do a video with us, and we were really excited about that, even though it never ended up happening. His idea, he said, was [Werner Herzog impression], “I want to put the whole band on a live volcano, very close to the lava. I want it to be very dangerous for you, and I want to see you try to play your instruments while the lava is all around you.” And we were like, “That sounds awesome!” I don’t know about the logistics of making that work, but he definitely wanted us to be in serious danger, just to see if a band could actually play a song while lava is surrounding them.
Tom Berninger: Matt, didn’t he say that The National was the third musical artist he’s ever gone to see play a show?
Matt Berninger: Yeah.
Tom Berninger: The first was Prince, who he despised. He felt he wasn’t—he said—
Matt Berninger: Wait wait wait, be careful, you don’t want to put words in his mouth.
Tom Berninger: Okay, well… He didn’t like Prince. But he loved Rammstein.
Matt Berninger: He said the only three shows he’d ever seen were Prince, Rammstein, and The National. And then he goes [Herzog accent], “I really liked Rammstein.” [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: To close by discussing the most resonant and uninterrupted snippet of concert footage in the film, did you realize in the moment that it was going to be a perfect ending for the movie? Also, can you discuss the decision to introduce the scene with the “A Film by Tom Berninger” title card?
Tom Berninger: I filmed that in Philadelphia after I got fired, because things were coming around, and I needed to shoot a proper live show with multiple cameras. And I needed to get a few more interviews. And I put that security shirt on kinda as a joke and kinda because it looked cool, but I had no idea. I had no idea that Matt was going to ask me to come onstage with him during “Terrible Love.” Matt actually came up to me during the encore and said, “I want you to come out and follow me.” And I was like, “Uh, all right.”
Matt Berninger: That happens a lot. Some security person always has to follow me, just for legal reasons half of the time. But I wanted Tom to do that. [To Tom.] You did that a few times at other places, but when you guys had the idea of making that the ending—one of the hardest things to figure out was how to end this movie, because Tom didn’t want the ending to be where he’s in some sort of subservient role to me, so that was tricky.
So the idea became to end the movie twice. One where we end the movie with Tom as the hero, where he’s saying, “Let me just figure this out,” and then you see the credit, and that’s kind of like, “Oh, he figured it out.” But then this coda with Tom following me into the crowd was a great second ending of just the two of us out in the mess together, connected by this cord. It was a weird, lucky thing that he got. I was actually kind of worried, like, “You can’t end the movie on me being a rock star and you carrying a cord,” but Tom and my wife Carin were like, “No no, that’s not what you’re doing, that’s not how people will see it.” So it was a bold choice to end it like that, in a somewhat ambiguous way.
Tom Berninger: My directing credit was part of the narrative. For me, it was part of the movie itself. There was some discussion where we were like, “Hopefully people won’t leave because they think the movie is over.” I think we all knew what we were doing, but someone at Tribeca said something that was really interesting, and it’s true, that this is kind of an audience-participation movie. The movie is only complete when someone is sitting down watching it. Someone sitting in their couch or whatever is the final puzzle piece, and that’s really cool. I like that idea. It makes me laugh.