Hailed by Michael Moore as “one of the best documentaries about a band that I’ve ever seen” and by Pitchfork as “the funniest, most meta music movie since ‘Spinal Tap’,” ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ is a truly hilarious and touching film about two brothers, Matt and Tom Berninger. Matt, the lead singer of the critically acclaimed rock band The National, finally finds himself flush with success. His younger brother Tom is a loveable slacker – a filmmaker and metal-head still living with his parents in Cincinnati. On the eve of The National’s biggest tour to date, Matt invites Tom to work for the band as a roadie, unaware of Tom’s plan to film the entire adventure. What starts as a rock documentary quickly becomes a crowd-pleasing journey about family, ambition, and the creative process. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Matt and Tom Berninger to discuss the origin of the documentary, the challenges of bringing it to life, the evolution of their relationship and much more.
Let’s go back to your early years. Obviously, music is a big part of your lives and how this film came to be. What are your first musical memories?
Matt: My first musical memories are Anne Murray, Roberta Flack and the Mickey Mouse Club, along with the ‘Grease’ soundtrack. I wasn’t until our older sister Rachael brought me home The Smiths, Violent Femmes and U2’s “Unforgettable Fire” and a couple of other records that I woke up and started hearing music differently and seeing what music could be. That was it for me.
Tom: I remember that I loved ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ the Frank Oz movie where he worked with Rick Moranis. I loved the last song in it called “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space.” I loved that album so much that in grade school, while sitting in the lunch room, I used to pretend I would turn into a giant plant and sing that song! I loved that soundtrack and that is one of my earliest musical memories!
“Mistaken for Strangers” is born from you going on tour together. What were you expectations for embarking on that journey together initially versus what came to be with this film project?
Tom: Let’s put it this way; I needed a job. My brother was nice enough to give me a job on his crew. All I really wanted to do was create video content for their website and eventually after I finished touring with The National, I would be able to maybe be able to get a job at some website firm. Literally, I was hoping to use their popularity to make my reel and get my portfolio together.
Matt: I just wanted him to get out of Cincinnati. I missed him but mostly I just wanted him to get out of the rut I thought he was in. I encouraged him to bring his camera along to make some sort of tour diary that we could possibly use for our website. Nobody in the band, including me or Tom, had the idea it would become a feature film at the end of this! If that had been a thought, I think we wouldn’t have let Tom do it! I think we would have hired somebody else! [laughs]
This is a bit of film within a film type of situation. How did you get the film off the ground and begin to plot what we ultimately see as the finished product? What can you tell us about putting it all together?
Matt: In many ways, after Tom got fired from the tour and had all of this footage, I knew he could make something from it. I invited him to come live at our house in Mew York. I didn’t want him to go back to Cincinnati because I knew if he did go back there, he would just go back into his old rut. I wanted him to make something out of it, so he moved in with us in Brooklyn. It was very much my wife who turned the light on a little bit as far as the potential of what this thing could be about. After Tom got fired, she felt that was really interesting and was the one who said that Tom should be in this film more and later on the film would become almost completely about Tom. It was very much her who set Tom on the right course with this thing. Then there was a very long process of Tom and my wife, Corrine, piecing together the things that tell the narrative.
Tom: I was being encouraged by Corrine and a few people around me to tell my story. I felt like I had nothing to lose. That might not have been true but I felt this could be my only chance to do something special or at least have a platform to let people see me do something special. In some ways I put on a blindfold and just went for it, as far as putting myself out there. I did get pretty nervous later on when the movie started to really come together. There are points in the movie where you see me crying and I am spilling my guts on screen that I felt kinda nervous about putting my life out there. I was torn between what would make a good movie if we kept with the story of this side of me but on the other hand I got really nervous that people would see something that was kind of embarrassing for me.
You mentioned the point in the film where Tom is fired from the tour and you were a bit at odds. How bad was that situation for you when you were going through it?
Matt: To be perfectly honest, there might have been even more tension than the movie even shows, in some cases. I think, when it comes to siblings and family, sometimes you say the meanest things to the people you love the most. It is a cliche but it pretties much the truth. I think I was really hard on Tom but he was also really frustrating. There were some very, very toxic times on tour and there were also some rough times after Tom moved in with us. Overall, it is one of those things where even though we argued and fought a lot, I was actually happier with him around than when he wasn’t around. I think when it comes to family, we are hardest on each other and it can get pretty ugly. Maybe it is because you are family and you will always be family that you push each other harder than anyone else because you do care more.
Were there any moments that might have not been captured on film during this time period that you wish had been?
Tom: There were, I’m sure. I am trying to remember.
Matt: Well, our sister.
Matt: We wish our sister was in the film more but she lives in Seattle.
Tom: Yeah. To be honest, we didn’t even know this would be such a family oriented movie for such a long time. Even when we released it, it was kind of a shock to us. It sorta makes sense now but I guess we were always trying to explore the differences between Matt and I — the two brothers, who in a very superficial way were like to boys. Looking back, there are a few moments where we wished we could have put our sister in.
Matt: I think there was a bunch of stuff that we did get that at times that Tom was hoping to use in the movie but they kind of took you away from the focus of the narrative, so we had to kill a lot of stuff that was really good. There will be a whole lot of fun bonus stuff. I don’t think you would ever recut the movie to a longer version, right?
Tom: No, no. I would never recut the movie. To be honest, it was such a hard movie to edit because I only shot with one camera and there were no cut-aways. There wasn’t another camera to cut to and everything was pretty much just a jump-cut. I had a multi0cam shoot for one show which is at the end of the movie. I just wish I had a mulit-cam shoot for a couple live moments because there is some live stuff my brother did with the band that was so great I wish I could have captured and presented it in a more professional way.
Obviously, the title of the film sprang from one of The National’s songs, “Mistaken for Strangers.” How did you arrive at the decision of choosing it for the title of the project?
Tom: “Mistaken for Strangers” was a last minute decision. One of my brother’s friends suggested it. It was really a last minute decision, like hours before the press release came out for Tribeca. Before that it was going to be called “For Those About To Weep,” which is a play off of an AC/DC album. We just changed “Rock” to “Weep” because of the sad nature of The National’s songs. Before that it was going to be called “Summer Lovin’ Torture Party,” which is a lyric to a song by The National that I am not to familiar with.
Matt: It’s funny; I think we were just too inside it to realize we had a really good title just sitting there. The movie isn’t so much connected to the song but the title of the song seemed to be a perfect title for the movie. We were lucky that someone else thought of that at the last minute!
What is the best lesson you both learned about yourselves and each other this film and how would you describe your relationship today?
Matt: I think I learned that Tom isn’t my little brother anymore. He is an adult and a different kind of person than me. I think I learned that I can’t try to shape him or change him and I shouldn’t. He is got gifts that I don’t have and they are just different. I think I have learned to stop being his older brother, to start being his friend and not try to push him.
Tom: I have learned to realize that being an adult means that you still don’t know where the hell you are going. I have learned from my brother that to be an adult and to be mature is still just as scary. Things are never going to quite clear up for you and you will always be grabbing in the dark for things for the rest of your life and I have to be ok with that. Also, I think I have learned I have to be ok with myself and never compare myself to anybody else. If you compare yourself to somebody, you will be paralyzed for the rest of your life and never be able to accomplish anything. I have learned to be ok with doing the best I can and be true to myself, be true to the things I find important, say the things I need to say and say them how I want to say them.
This film is all about love, family, relationships and being brothers. Can you see yourselves working together on future projects?
Matt: I mean, I don’t know. It’s tough! [laughs] I think Tom is good in front of the camera, maybe even better than even being behind the camera. He has wanted to do that too. Tom has been taking acting courses and I have been encouraging him to film all of that because I think it would be fun how someone starting at the bottom rung in the world of acting goes about it; from getting head shots, going to auditions and acting courses…
Tom: And getting rejected and rejected and rejected! [laughs]
Matt: Yeah but maybe you won’t get rejected! Actually, we are already collaborating on a thing where I am not in it but it follows Tom little bit into the acting world. It could be nothing but it is fun to think about.
Is there any charity work you are involved with that we can help spread the word on?
Matt: The National has a big Grateful Dead tribute album that will go toward helping the Red Hot Organization. That is being put together. How about you, Tom?
Tom: I like The Innocence Project…
Matt: He is a big supporter of The Innocence Project. I would like to start a fundraiser so that Tom can move out of my garage!
Thanks so much for your time guys and thanks for sharing a look inside your world.
Tom: Thanks, man!
Matt: Thank you, Jason!
‘Mistaken For Strangers’ hits theaters and On Demand n March 28, 2014. Check out the official website for the film at www.MistakenForStrangersMovie.com. Like the film on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MistakenForStrangersMovie.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.