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Talking with Tom Berninger of "Mistaken For Strangers"


Hot off the success of his documentary, I had a chance to sit down with Tom Berninger of Mistaken For Strangers. Brother to The National frontman, Matt Berninger, and emerging filmmaker, Tom set out with the band for their year-long world tour with all intentions of making a rock doc. He came away with something else entirely. Boldly turning the camera on himself, Tom's final product was an intimate take on familial challenges and finding himself rather than a portrait of the much loved indie rock sensation.

Talking about the reaction to the film, his take on the lost nature of the tech generation, indie rock vs. metal, his relationship with his brother, horror movies, how the film "needed a Darth Vader" and what he would like to do next (a Johnny Appleseed movie?), Tom had a lot to say.

Although the film has no current plans for a major theatrical release, it has been making the festival circuit rounds after opening the Tribeca Music Festival in New York. Next, it will hop continents over to Sydney, Australia for the Sydney Film Festival. Keep an eye out for this one as it's definitely worth a watch. For more thoughts on the film, click on over to our review of Berninger's Mistaken for Strangers.


How have you liked Seattle so far?

Tom Berninger: It’s been great. I’ve been here many times in my life. My sister lives here so I’ve visited the city a lot.

I didn’t know you had a sister.

TB: Yeah, she’s not in the movie.

Do you have more siblings than Matt and your sister?

TB: I have an older sister and an older brother. My sister is 10 years older than me and my brother is 9 years older. I’m the surprise 9 years later. She came to the screening last night and I get the same question every single screening, “How does your sister feel? Where is your sister in it?” I had to call her up and ask, “How do you feel?” She’s hilarious. She was like, “I didn’t really care at first until it got really popular, now I have a problem with it.” She had seen the movie, and like I say, our family has a sense of humor that could be taken the wrong way and out of context so some of the things she says is hilarious but we couldn't get it in without making her look like a bitch. I couldn’t do it or she would never forgive me.

The song 'Mistaken for Strangers' for which the documentary is named seems to be about some kind of drifter, unrecognizable in the night even by those closest to them. Do you identify with this mysterious man and do you find parallels between him and your relationship with your brother and is that why you named the documentary after that song?

TB: We had a lot of different names for the movie. The first name was ‘Summer Lovin’ Torture Party,’ which is a lyric from the last album, and then the other title was ‘For Those About to Weep’.

That would be suiting.

TB: Yeah, I liked it because it was a play on the AC/DC song and what a lot of people consider as The National’s music which is solemn. We thought that was good but some people didn’t like that so eventually we sent out a big email asking people to help with the title and we got ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ and that was great.

It’s a very suiting title because it sums up your relationship with Matt.

TB: It is. It’s a great title. I don’t really take songs literally but me and my producer Craig Charland said sometime a long time ago about how one of the themes of the movie is people our age, late 20’s, early 30’s, who are still kind of lost. Either they have good jobs or bad jobs but life is unfulfilling. This isn’t the first generation where a lot of people aren’t gonna make as much money as their parents but there’s a lot of people out there who feel lost and it’s ok. You’ll figure it out in 5 years, and I’m not saying never give up, but you’ll figure it out at some point in time.

That’s funny you say that because that’s what I took away from the film.

TB: We knew that there was a part of the movie that was a great thread throughout the movie and we kind of just happened upon it where the camera is on me all the time and we chose these moments where I was feeling like crap. Like when they wanted me to invited the girl and I said no because I’m not ready. It’s bullshit because you should just embrace life but I think people our age are expecting something more and I don’t know if there is anymore. I hated my 20’s but I’m loving my 30’s. It took me 10 years of being lost.

Being lost is part of our generation in a way that it never was necessarily a part of our parents' generation. You get out of college, you get married, find a job and stay with it for 30 years and that’s just not the formula anymore.

TB: There’s this idea of being happy like, “I should be happy now. I should be feeling good. Why am I not happy? My parents were happy,” but were they? I came from Cincinnati, Ohio and my parents married at 24, 23. That was kind of late in the early 60’s. Who knows if they were happy and if they felt like they made the right choices. Our generation doesn’t know what’s best. Maybe it was simpler times back then and maybe that is happiness: finding that person that you’re ok with. This generation, we’re always searching for something better and I don’t know if there is anything better. It is what it is. It takes a lot more to make us happy but people are searching. The idea of the title certainly reflects me and my brother as we are so far apart in age and we definitely grew up to be completely different people. I was searching for a creatively outlet because I didn’t have a band or another four guys around me to help me do my thing. I only had myself and I was self defeating for a long time.

Did the process of making the film help your relationship with Matt?

TB: Absolutely. He didn’t really know what I was doing or what this movie was gonna be until late in the editing stage but he saw it and him and Carin Besser, the other producer, and Matt’s wife, who also helped me edit, pushed me to keep filming myself. We knew that there was something in the movie with me as the main subject matter that is important and my life and struggle are something that a lot of people can relate to. We’ve always had respect for each other but I’ve figured out his way of thinking and his creative process, which at times can be overbearing, but he’s starting to figure out the way I work. I don’t quite know where I’m going but I’m going forward in all directions. I don’t always have a clear vision where he might. He always, like he says, has delusion optimism where whatever you’re doing just think it’s great because 99 percent of the time it’s not gonna be great but that 1 percent of the time, that little sentence in the script or that one little cut will be great and we’ll keep that part. Through this, we’ve become adults. We came together on tour and through that we’ve learned to see each other as adults now. He sees me as an adult and this movie has definitely helped. Our relationship was always great though. We knew this movie was a good movie and a movie that has to be told and it’s nice that a lot of success has come from it but we have grown together in a weird way. We’re excited to work together in the future. I would love to work again with my brother because we have this weird chemistry onscreen. We are like Laurel and Hardy. We are so different that it brings out some things in my brother that I think he likes. It shows that he has this sense of humor and isn’t this dark, brooding lord of The National. He’s really funny and he has a brother that is nothing like him and he has to deal with me and I have to deal with him and I have to deal with indie rock, which is great by the way. I love The National. I think we’re good for each other.

You’re like a ying and yang.

TB: A ying and yang, yeah. We’re honest with each other. I’m honest in the way I filter things through and I’m honest to my point of view and he values and respects that.

But in a lot of ways, you and your brother are polar opposites.

TB: In many ways but he got me into movies. When I was a kid, we didn’t have cable t.v. but he got my dad to get this thing called a VCR. All I had was 3 channels and all of a sudden I could put in this movie with graphic violence. Die Hard and Predator, I’d never seen these things and they were the greatest things in my entire life. There’s swearing and nudity. I was like, “What are these things? I love em. I want to make movies.” I was like 5 or 6 and I remember him taking me to the driveway and we would talk about movies all the time. I don’t know what we would talk about except for Predator and Aliens. I think Matt has always had this super confidence that made me feel like I could do that. I could be a movie maker. It took me another 20 years or so but he’s always had this idea that you can do anything for me. For a while, it was hard because I saw his success and I felt lost because I felt like I wasn’t doing what I promised myself I would do. I was making short movies but I didn’t know if I had what it takes or if I was even making the right movies or what I was gonna say or if what I was saying it the right way or even making it marketable. Him taking me under his wing one more time and us making this thing together and working with me and us clashing worked out really, really well.

While you set the movie up in your head before beginning, did you ever expect yourself to not be a part of the film at all, because late in the movie you have that moment of epiphany where you realize that you are the subject of the movie and this is your experience?  

TB: I shot myself knowing that I would want to be, and I didn’t know that there was gonna be a movie, maybe just a DVD extra of ‘Matt’s Brother Tom’ or a behind the scenes look but I wanted to be in it because I knew I was making it and there were fans that didn’t know that Matt had a brother. There was something funny about the way I look and my taste in movies and music that might be an interesting angle so I kept filming myself a little bit. I didn’t know that the movie was gonna be all about me and my brother. For a long time, I was trying to make your typical rock doc or band documentary but with a style all my own but I didn’t think I was gonna be taking it over until much, much later. I didn’t have anything so I kept through myself in during the editing at their behest. They said, “You have to keep filming yourself Tom because this is good. You do have something good but what’s really good is you.” But sometimes, I didn’t feel like shooting myself right now so it was difficult but I thought this would make a good movie if I was willing to do it.

If you make another documentary, would you take a similar approach of free-balling it and seeing where it goes or would you try to be more organized from the get-go?

TB: Much more organized. I never really wanted to do documentaries. I still want to do fiction narratives. I would definitely prepare more but what worked out really well is I do kind of free ball it a little bit. I have an idea in my head, and like my brother taught me, I just go with it. What this movie has taught me is that those screw ups and fuck ups and the moments when I caught myself drunk or something were actually really poignant. They might be funny but they’re also really sad. I made good choices but I would definitely prepare more. I know the style that I have but whatever comes to my mind at the moment, I will do. I will get my structure down and then just go off because that worked really well.

In the film there’s almost a villain in the tour manager, the guy who keeps shutting you down and is just really harsh. Have you reconciled with him at all after this film or has he apologized for treating you poorly?

TB: No, we’re good friends. We were good friends before and after. He’s been the front of house and main sound guy for ten years. He’s been around a long time. He was somewhat a victim of the editing but he’s tough and all business. Earlier on we knew that the movie needed a Darth Vader and Brandon had some scenes that were so amazing where we was giving me shit and he didn’t care. He still wanted me to make a good movie and help out with the band. We just made sure that he was ok with it. To be honest, looking back, I was not the best. I was not a good employee and he was doing his job. The scenes in the movie, I was a little bit of a doofus and a baby. I think he has a right to get angry and lay down the law. I never apologized and he was totally fine with it but he is getting remarks. People are treating him a little differently but he thinks it’s almost good. He said, “People are listening to me. I have this presence of watch out.” He was definitely kind of a victim of the editing and he knew it was coming.

Were they apprehensive about shifting the focus from the band onto yourself considering the marketing of the film seems like it’s a documentary on The National where it’s really not. It’s your show and your relationship with your brother. Have you experienced any backlash about that or are you worried that you might receive some?

TB: I have not seen any backlash. I only get forwarded positive reviews, I don’t read much. I certainly don’t look at their message boards but I’m sure there is. I’m sure there’s people who wanted to get inside the bands head. The band didn’t know what I was doing for a long time and they always said to turn the camera on myself more and be in this movie. I think they were saying that as kind of trying to focus on you Tom. Do what you wanna do and we’ll still put it on a DVD for you because they like me but I think they were a little concerned with my questions and my lack of direction. So I think they were happy that they heard that the movie was less about the band and more about me and my brother. When they finally saw it, they did really like it. I always thought that with all the interviews with the guys, I would always first ask them what I thought were typical rock doc questions and then I would move onto brothers and then I would talk about me and my brother. That was always the best stuff because I eventually started complaining to them and that’s all we kept of those interviews, me complaining about my brother. It started to look like the band guys were my psychiatrists or a shoulder to cry on and that was really interesting to me. It made me laugh but I was hoping that this might maybe be a better way to meet these guys and get inside their heads. For me, my movie and who I am in relationship to the fans it’s more interesting to not hear them talk about their writing process but how they feel about Matt and how they feel about brothers or even my struggles. My pain reflecting off of them. You still get to get into their heads and know them as people, they’re just not talking about albums or touring. I think there’s a better documentary for someone else down the line to do that. I think I made a good choice not making that documentary. It would be a waste. This was a better move on my part.

Yeah, the rock doc has been done so many times before and it’s become a tired formula by now and you’ve changed that formula up here. So you say that the band has responded really positively to the film, how has the feedback been from screenings and what have people been saying to you?

TB: Almost all amazingly positive. We couldn’t have asked for a better response to the movie. We really didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know if we had a good movie. Matt always said, “We have a really good movie Tom” but that was his delusional optimism speaking. Before we screened it for anyone, I was still really concerned because the movie is just me. I still want to make movies but I didn’t know that this was the way it was gonna turn out. This wasn’t the way I planned on breaking into the industry. What’s been really amazing for our group, me, my brother, Carin Besser and Craig Charland, our two producers, we are realizing people are seeing this as a sibling movie. This is a family movie set around a rock band. The rock band is simply the backdrop. We knew that we had a piece of that in it but we didn’t know how much people would find their relationships with their brothers or sisters or even close friends. We want to make sure this film gets seen outside of the documentary range, maybe even in family drama. So this was much more than we expected. It’s been all amazing.

In the movie, we see your early, low-budg horror movies made up in the mountains. Do you still have a big interest in horror movies and do you plan to return to that and make your own independent or even studio horror movie?

TB: Yeah, I’ve always wanted to make the scariest movie ever made. That’s my goal. I still want to make a great thriller, a great action, a great horror movie. I think I’ve moved on from total blood and violence but I don’t know. My greatest dream was to play a villain. I always wanted to play Freddy Kruger or Jason. I wanted to play the killer in a movie. I don’t know if after making this movie those opportunities are gonna come around. To be honest, I feel like the horror genre today does kind of bore me. I used to love them as a kid but those movies were reflections of even earlier 80’s horror movies and most of the time, I don’t get scared at horror movies. Thrillers are what I want to do.

If you were given the keys to make any movie you wanted to, do you have anything that you would have to do that’s been circulating in your mind?

TB: After making those horror-action movies, I did make a movie about Johnny Appleseed. It was my attempt at becoming a serious filmmaker, like, “I don’t only do horror movies. I can do period dramas.” All my movies thus far have been period dramas or period horror movies. It was called ‘Deer Path’ and it was the story of Johnny Appleseed literally carrying a mail-order bride through the woods to a frontiersman. Before he was Johnny Appleseed, he was a frontier porter. It was an interesting concept and it was executed ok. I shot it very slowly and either on dollies or tripods, not all handheld and crazy. I didn’t put it out to festivals but I did a small screening and people said it was kind of boring. I would like to revisit that and the Johnny Appleseed story. I did research on that and found that he was this crazy guy who was kind of like the Don Juan of the American frontier. He was very charismatic. There are more legends than truths about this guy but he was a real guy. He basically planted crabapples for apple mash for alcohol but he still traveled the frontier and hung around towns and had affairs with a lot of woman. There’s a story in there and I would like to revisit that. One of my favorite movies of all time is Michael Mann’s ‘Last of the Mohicans’, the score is probably half of it, but I always wanted to do a Johnny Appleseed movie looking like that because he was around that area.

Just cast Daniel Day Lewis and the movie will be green lit.

TB: Yeah, I know. I’m kind of surprised that there hasn’t been something about that guy. With Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist history movies that he’s been making with ‘Django’ and ‘Inglorious Basterds’, I feel like I have a real opportunity to do a revisionist history on Johnny Appleseed and make a legend out of him. There’s more legend than truths and he’s a really interesting guy. If I had 100 million then [that’s the one.]

At the beginning of the film, it didn’t seem like you were the biggest fan of The National’s music. Do you listen to The National anymore now than you did before the making of the film or is it still just not your scene?

TB: Well their new album just dropped today or yesterday. I like indie rock. I do appreciate all music but it’s just not my [jam]. I feel like I do pigeonhole myself but I like metal. There’s so much good metal out there especially being made today and it’s not always that aggressive stuff. It’s just so doomy and beautiful. I’ve always liked it. I like the epicness of it and the direct form of expression that metal has always had and the underdog quality of metal. A lot of people don’t like it or get it and I’m proud that I’ve got it. It’s very tongue-and-cheek. Indie rock seems to take itself too seriously. It seems to be less fun than other music where metal is all about just having a good time.

Do you have a favorite song of The National’s?

TB: I’ve always liked this one song ‘Friend of Mine’ which was a couple of albums ago. They never play it live because it’s really hard to play live but I always beg them to but they can’t. My brothers voice just runs out of steam.

It’s a studio song.

TB: Yeah. I’m like, “Why can’t you play all your songs? Why put it on the album if you can’t play it live?” but I think a lot of bands do that.

Yeah, like The Beatles stopped playing after ’66. They never played live again.

TB: Yeah exactly.

Finally, what’s next for you?

TB: I don’t know. There are some articles that said, “What is Tom Gonna Do Next? Is he gonna just stay in Cincinnati or get a job in New York?” I just wanna make movies. I’ve always wanted to make movies. Me being in my movie makes me look at what I’m gonna do next differently. I do have a presence that I didn’t know I had and people seem to like it. I do have an interesting take on things but I don’t know what I’m gonna do next. It’s gonna be a while. I’m well aware of the sophomore slumps. This movie took a really long time to craft and figure out and I don’t care about people say about needing to strike when it’s hot, I just don’t wanna rush it. I’m working on a couple ideas right now but it’s bad until it’s good. Whatever you do. It’ll take as long as it takes and I’m lucky enough to not have much of a deadline.


Mistaken For Strangers is directed by, written by and starring Matt Berninger.

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