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The National’s Matt Berninger on Mistaken for Strangers

by Mike Greenhaus on March 28, 2014

Today marks the official national release of Mistaken for Strangers.The documentary shares the story of Tom Berninger (who also directed the film) as he goes on tour with his older brother, Matt and The National. Tom, a filmmaker and heavy metal fan living with his parents in Cincinnati, starts out as a roadie (before he’s fired from the gig) and shares his unique perspective on the experience. While interviewing Matt Berninger for a Relix feature on the National, Mike Greenhaus also spoke with him about Tom and the film.

You are currently making the rounds behind your brother’s film Mistaken for Strangers, which debuted at Tribeca Film Festival in April. As the only member of the band who doesn’t have his brother usually on the road, could you start by telling me a little bit about how, creatively, having your brother on the road influenced you at that time.

When he was on the road, enough though a lot of it seems like it was all friction [in the film], it wasn’t all friction between us. In fact, having him around relieved a lot of tension in some ways between the band and within the band. He was able to come into a room and just whatever, just bring a sort of lightness just because he’s just a natural goofball and he wasn’t always trying to be funny but he would just make people laugh all the time. And occasionally it was heartbreaking because he’s like, “I know I’m funny but sometimes I’m just not even trying to be funny,” and I just said, ‘Well that’s your curse Tom.” What he did for me was provide an ear and a shoulder when there was tension between our band and there is always a lot of tension in this band.

There is always a lot of creative tension and just the traveling and living in a bus and all that. There is tension between us and somehow the fact that I would often be able to go back to a hotel room or even back to the bus or backstage and just be able to vent to him about anxieties just popped and relieved a lot of that pressure. So it was actually really, really healthy having him around for the whole band and I think he provided that release for the whole band. Unfortunately, he created a lot more tension for Brandon, the tour manager and then because there was the tension between them—I put them both into a really difficult spot and then that caused a lot of other tension which is all in the movie. But the truth is—which isn’t in the movie as much as I wish—was how great it was and how happy I was to have him around.

In terms of the process of creating the movie, I know your wife worked on it with him, and he was living with you for a long time. How involved was she in the creation of the film and was it surreal to have a camera on you even when you were at home?

When he was filming it and having the camera around I never minded very much because half the time we were goofing around and doing jack-assey stuff that we thought maybe would be funny little things on the website. Very little of that actually ends up on the movie and very little of that actually became what the movie was about which is ultimately good because that would have been entertaining for 20 minutes—at the most, maybe not even at all.

I liked him being around and I liked that he had the camera and everyone got really comfortable. I mean, Bryan Devendorf doesn’t like to be interviewed and also doesn’t like to have his picture taken that much and Tom interviews him in the shower so Tom has this ability to do that kind of thing. But then, in terms of when he moved in with my wife and I to start editing it, I wanted him to start finishing the movie because he had 200 hours of footage, and it was going to be hard for him to have a real job—I mean he could have but it was hard and what I thought was going to take about 3 or 4 months at the most—took a year and a half of him living with us. He moved out to California with us and everything and he still technically lives with us.

You are from Cincinnati and The National are define Brooklyn indie rock in many circles. What led you to move to California?

I live in Venice with my wife—well we have kind of been going back and forth—but her parents live in California. We moved out there and we have been going back and forth but he came out there for several months and so anyway, so he was living with us and my wife started getting involved because she had to because she wanted this movie to be finished and because the editing of the movie and the crafting of the movie was starting to cause a lot of tension because it was a mess. We didn’t know what we had and it wasn’t until she came in and said, “Well, the stuff of Tom, the ugly stuff is what is interesting” and so when the movie started to find its vision, and that had a lot to do with my wife.

She is originally an editor and so the two of them started to craft it and then the movie started to become something that I really respected. Even though it was unflattering to me in some ways but mostly it was very unflattering to him but he was willing to put himself and show himself in such ugly and weak moments that I was fine with him showing me being an asshole occasionally or whatever so then the movie actually became really emotionally important for all three of us and it became sort of like, ‘Well, this is the kind of stuff that is always in our songs—the awkward underbelly of everybody’s psyches and he started to pull back the layers of that and my wife started exposing all of that stuff. So many scenes of the movie I remember right after he would shot them--even stuff with Bryan I remember saying, ‘make sure you don’t put that in the movie’ and that ended up being all the stuff that was in the movie. When he is asking Bryan about the drugs he asks Bryan about that stuff and Bryan doesn’t really say anything and then right after Bryan says, ‘Don’t put that in the movie’ and Tom says, ‘Well, you know…’ and Bryan says, ‘No seriously, I don’t want that in the movie.’ It was tense and, of course, Tom put it in the movie and Bryan loves it now but…

The film makes him look like a the most-star member of the band/

Well, it’s because it’s so awkward and it’s clear that wasn’t about Bryan it was about Tom. The movie became for me, and for my wife and Tom and I, one of the more creative things we have ever done in our lives. It did change me and change the way I think about.

Robert DeNiro introduced your film when it opened Tribeca Film Festival. Were you able to hang out with him at all?

No. Well, Tom had lunch with him but that means Tom was at the table about 8 or 10 people away and he sat next to DeNiro’s wife, and we got a picture with DeNiro but he apparently doesn’t talk much to anybody. Tom sat in between De Niro’s wife and Sandra Bernhardt and got along really well with both of them and Sandra Bernhard told him—because I guess De Niro said a little something at the opening of the movie—and I guess she was there and she said, “Tom, Bobby said more that night than I’ve ever heard him say. We’ve been friends for 20 years and I don’t think we’ve spoken more than 3 or 4 words to each other.”’ [Laughter.]

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