Q&A: Director Tom Berninger on the National’s Unconventional Tour Documentary, Mistaken for Strangers, and His Relationship With His Front Man Brother

When the National’s lead singer, Matt Berninger, got his metalhead brother Tom a job working as a roadie for the band’s High Violet tour in 2010, he knew his younger sibling would be bringing along a camera. Initially, Tom planned to shoot short, funny vignettes about the band members, possibly for the National’s website. Over time, he wound up turning the camera on himself, as his misbegotten odyssey as a backstage crew member went from bad to worse. Luckily, the tour documentary Mistaken for Strangers turned out much better than Tom’s short-lived roadie career. While Strangers includes band interviews and performance footage from scattered concerts performed all over the world, the film centers on the relationship between Tom and his older, skinnier, and more successful rock star brother. The final result is a cross between a conventional rock doc and American Movie — like hockey-haired Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt, Tom Berninger is a hard-drinking, hard-luck wannabe horror filmmaker who is trying to get his life in order and make his dreams come true. Mistaken for Strangers premiered last month as the Tribeca Film Festival, and will be screening at festivals throughout the year. After spending an afternoon interviewing the National, I called up Tom to talk about the movie, his concerns about being typecast as a drunken goofball, and heavy-metal Christmas albums.

Were you anxious at all before the movie premiered, as far as how people would respond to it?

Well, of course, yeah. My brother seemed to be a lot more confident than I was because I was in it so much. I couldn’t hide — I mean, I was director, I was cinematographer, I was the editor for the most part, and I’m in the movie. I say it as a joke, but I kind of feel that it’s going to be the weirdest, worst movie people have ever seen, or one of the best movies you’ve ever seen. I didn’t want my life, and my story, and my movie, to be average or forgotten about. I’d much rather have my life be the worst piece of crap any of you guys have ever seen, because at least it’s memorable, you know?

Can you talk about how the movie evolved? Because I know initially it started out as a jokey documentary about the band and then turned into something more serious about the relationship between you and Matt.

I was hired to help Brandon, the tour manager, and be a new roadie. My brother always says that I have a chip on my shoulder and that’s why I started filming myself — that I wanted to be in my own movie about the National. But that wasn’t necessarily 100 percent the truth. I mean, I just wanted to use their fame and their exposure to show that Matt has a brother who’s a good shooter, is out of film school, and does movies. I simply just wanted to put myself in the movie a little bit to say that I’m also a creative force within our family. I was just happy to do web content, or maybe a music video, or something, just to put it on my reel — to use their name. But I certainly had never dreamed of, and I would’ve laughed at the idea of, making a documentary, because I really had no idea what I was doing.

This doesn’t come always across in the movie, but Matt told me that he really liked having you on tour. “I actually had somebody to lean on and to vent to,” he said.

It’s nice for him to say that and I think it is true. We did have a fun time, some of the time. He used to call me up years ago on tour when the band was not doing so well. Or the band was just touring and losing tons and tons of money seven, eight years ago. He would still call me up while I was in college. No, I understand how he could say that, that it was nice being on tour. And it was. The guys are awesome, all the band guys. And they were never really — never to my face, at least — concerned about what I was doing except when they literally griped to Brandon about certain things, like “He’s messing things up in the bus.” I would never really hear what kind of a shit job I was doing firsthand from the band guys. I was always told this from Brandon, which was unfortunate for him.

Matt mentioned a story — I don’t think this was in the movie — about you backing up a truck and knocking the awning off an awning store.

Yeah, it was the very first day of my job. I didn’t even have a camera yet. It was outside this place called the Bell House. I had to pull the Ryder truck off the sidewalk that they were loading in and out from, and the Ryder truck had a 14-foot clearance, and I just didn’t pay attention to that at all and kept driving off the sidewalk, and I just tore an awning right off an awning store. That set the tone for me for the rest of the tour.

You know, if you’re going to knock down an awning, it might as well be at an awning store. You figure they probably have an extra awning on hand.

Yeah, that’s true. I couldn’t have picked a better store.

There’s that part in the movie when you basically say, “This isn’t what I expected from touring with a band. There’s not much of a rock-and-roll lifestyle going on here.” So that must’ve been kind of a surprise, in a way, to see that side of the rock business, that it’s not just partying and having a good time.

I was the one that was obviously fucking up and getting drunk. I shot myself a lot being really wasted. I was sitting there for a long time and thought, This is the reason I don’t have anything, because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. And luckily that became the story. And luckily I was able to take little sound bites from these guys to help shape the film. It wasn’t lucky, it just took a long time to see that there actually is a story there with me screwing up. And it wasn’t easy to show that. It took a long time for me to say, “OK, let’s put this in there. I can see why this is really funny or really sad. Let’s just see how this plays.”

Is it tough for you to see yourself acting out like that onscreen?

I’ve gotten over seeing myself because I’ve been looking at myself for a long, long, long time now in the editing chair. But there is an element that maybe this will be how people think of me for the rest of my life, that I’m still that bumbling goofball that we put in the movie. And I’m actually OK with that because it’s taken other people to tell me that, yeah, I’m bumbling, but I’m also extremely awesome and cool. You know, people still like you and people are still rooting for you. And it’s nice to hear, because I don’t want to be, not typecast, but I want to do other things, and I want to be a serious filmmaker or a person in movies. And I think I get this feeling like, “Why would we hire this guy? He’s a drunk,” or, “He doesn’t have it together,” and that worries me a little bit, I guess.

You’re obviously in Brooklyn now. Are you still staying at your brother’s place?

Yeah, I’m still staying on his couch indefinitely. But hopefully soon I will be able to afford my own apartment somewhere and, yeah, get off the couch. I’ve been on his dime and on the National’s dime for a long, long time making this movie. And that’s what makes me really happy about the success of this movie, that they stuck with me. My brother and Brandon and the whole band had faith. They had faith in me and I’m glad I was able to deliver. It’s a weight off my shoulders, definitely.

Are you going to be going on tour with them again for the new album?

No. I would love to visit and just watch a show. I’ve seen 300 shows, but I was never able to really watch one, you know? So I’m more than happy to visit them for a day or two — hang out, have fun, bask in the glory, and then go home. And, to be honest, I’m gonna be traveling with this movie for at least a year just promoting it and getting it in festivals and my job is now this movie, and my job is wherever I need to be going next.

One of my favorite scenes in Mistaken for Strangers is when you get drunk on the tour bus and listen to Rob Halford’s Christmas album. The first thing I did after I saw the movie for the first time was look up Halford’s version of “O Holy Night,” because it’s surprisingly great! I had no idea.

His whole album is pretty fantastic, actually. The Winter Songs album. Obviously I’m a big metal fan, and Priest has always been kind of the original gangsters of heavy metal. When I knew he was coming out with a Christmas album I rolled by eyes. Here’s a heavy-metal guy — an openly gay, totally leathered out, old heavy-metal god — singing “O Holy Night” and “We Three Kings” and “O Come, Emmanuel.” I’m like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” And he just delivers. He brings them home and it’s so awesome. It just put a smile on my face, and that “O Holy Night” is just one of the best renditions of that song I’ve ever heard. It’s fucking great.

It sounds evil when he does it.

Well, if you know Judas Priest lyrics, usually it’s about the devil and stuff like that. But it’s funny how well they made it feel like a metal song, dealing with this heavy epic imagery, which a lot of metal does. This very epic, very spiritual, very mystical imagery. And it translates well, yeah. It’s a darker rendition, but it’s still triumphant. It’s still glorious and powerful. The power and the majesty of it all.

Is “the power and majesty of it all” what you like about metal?

My brother would always send me [music], like “You should listen to the Pixies.” He would always send me bands that I should be listening to, and that kind of annoyed me. I think I started listening to metal in high school. No one really introduced me to it — I mean I liked Metallica, because Metallica’s “Black Album” was out, and I listened to that and a little bit of Megadeth, and I liked that stuff. But I really wanted to figure out the roots of it all. This was in the late ’90s; no one listened to that stuff. Why? What happened to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest? In my high school, you know, they think that’s stupid shit. I feel like I purposefully sought that out — not trying to be ironic, or like, “Look at me, I’m listening to stuff you’re not listening to” — and it ended up being what I really love.

Do you like the National’s music? Because it’s definitely not metal.

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve listened to every single album before it was ever released and I really enjoy it. And honestly, I like it because my brother, he sings like a dude. I mean, that’s not why I like it, but a lot of the stuff is darker and more depressing, or just real, and the imagery he talks about, it does resonate with me. But also, I like the fact that they are not a pop band. Even though they do have poppy songs and rock songs, they’re heavier. It feels darker to me. But also, in that same breath, one of the reasons why I was on tour making these goofy vignettes of these guys was because they were getting a lot of that — a lot of the criticisms were that people couldn’t get into the music: “Oh it’s too depressing” or “I don’t want to feel sad all the time.” I just can’t put my headphones on and listen to pop all the time. I just feel kind of fake if I listen to poppy, light music.

Filed Under: The National

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland.

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