Mistaken For Strangers: The rock documentary that became Tom Berninger's personal journey

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The Berningers are a talented family: Tom Berninger is a filmmaker, and when his brother Matt, a member of the Brooklyn-based band The National, asked him to go on tour as a roadie, he obliged. Tom needed a job and some direction, and his brother's request inadvertently offered both. Tom was fired eight months in, but he'd been filming the band and crew the whole time. The result was 2013's Mistaken For Strangers, a documentary about The National -- but also a look at Tom's own personal struggle for success.

In advance of the film's opening this Friday, April 18 at the Sie FilmCenter -- where Tom Berninger will be a guest for both evening showings -- Westword spoke with him about his relationship with his brother and the things that make a good rock documentary.

See also: Album sales are in the Crapper, but The National is doing just fine

Westword: The film is really wonderful, but I have to admit: I had never really listened to The National before seeing it. However, it made me want to listen to them.

Tom Berninger: To me, that's always the best compliment I get -- people come up to me and say things like, "I just came here because my girlfriend told me to come see this movie, but I really liked it." That's the best compliment, when they don't know the band -- or especially if they don't even like my brother's band -- but they like the movie. (Laughs)

It's interesting to meet a band through their personalities -- and through your eyes -- before getting to know them through their music.

That's what I strived to do; I was always worried that fans would want to get to know the guys more -- and some people have expressed that -- but I felt like what I did do with this movie is get a sense of who they are as people, instead of just talking about their music the whole time. I hope that you could get sense of who each band member is.

When your brother invited you to go on this tour as a roadie, did you plan on making a documentary? I know you are a filmmaker, but was that part of your original intent in taking him up on the offer?

No. Absolutely not. I needed a job, and my brother was willing to give me a job. Also, all I was going on tour to do was be a roadie. I was really interested in becoming a videographer and shooting small little videos for their website while I was on tour as a roadie -- kind of like a video diary that they could put on their website as a "fan extra."

It was exciting for me because I thought I could use it as a jump-off point to maybe becoming a videographer for websites. Really, I had 100 percent no clue that this would turn into a movie. It was only for the website, if anything, and for me to jumpstart my film career again by using their big name and their fan base as a way to hopefully do other cool things, you know?

When I think about being a super-fan of a band, it isn't the videos or interviews that I like to see -- it's the candid moments where a band is just being themselves. This is like an entire movie of that.

When we started talking about it becoming more than the little goofy web stuff and I started toying with the idea of it becoming more of a movie it was late, late, late in the tour, while I was editing. You know, I'm always afraid to meet my idols -- I've never really wanted to meet or interview a band that I like and respect. I'm always afraid that they are not going to be cool or they're going to be jerks or something like that. The National gets a bum rap -- I mean, they play deeper, darker music and have a darker edge, so they get stereotyped as being this depressing indie rock band.

But the guys couldn't be more opposite of that -- I really wanted to show them as lighthearted, fun guys. I wanted to deflate their weird image of the brooding indie rock hipsters, by kind of making fun of them. Not making fun of the music, but making fun of the whole idea of celebrity and the cool indie rock hipster. These guys are actually very nice, down-to-earth guys.

Once you made the decision to create a full film from this footage, when it was finished, did it turn out to be what you thought it would? I mean, it is just as much, if not more, a story about you and your life and your personal struggles.

If we were in a city or a town (on tour) where an old college buddy or friend would be living, I would call them up and say, "Come film me and then you can watch this (concert.)" So, I was going to be making something coming from a road point-of-view -- it was like, "Film me doing my roadie job and make sure if I get yelled at, make sure you film that, because it is part of my life being a roadie." But in the end process when I looked at all the footage I had, to be honest, I was the most interesting thing that was happening on tour -- my experience on tour. Like getting drunk on the bus.

These guys in the band are just cool guys -- they're not like Motley Crüe; they don't have drug problems, they don't have horrible shit happening to them. Horrible shit was happening to me on tour. It started to feel like my story was the most interesting, but it took a while and talking to a lot of people -- we did a lot of test screenings. We just wanted to make sure it was okay that there was less of (The National) and more of me in it. People seemed to really enjoy my struggles, so we slowly slipped more of my story in and took more of The National out and it worked better.

But that was never was the intention; it was just kind of crazy what was going on in my life. I had this big opportunity to make something with this band and I wasn't blowing it, but it was a question of what was I doing? I had recorded these crazy interviews. It was me behind the camera as a documentarian, but also my life and my journey on this tour. Even when I was behind the camera, I couldn't help but say something, or you could see my reflection in a shot or something stupid. It just felt like I couldn't be taken out of that -- I didn't make a normal rock doc from the very beginning. We had to figure out how to make it work.

But sure, we cut for comedy. I started to realize that some of the stuff I was doing was hilarious and the truth is, the questions [I was asking the band], while they made me laugh, they were things I really wanted to know, like, what do rock stars have nightmares about? What kind of nightmares does Bono or Metallica or celebrities in general have? I was interested in that -- I was interested in an answer. I guess they weren't your typical questions, but I found typical rock doc questions boring.

It was a very hard movie to edit and my whole presence in the movie was sort of organic -- like, of course this movie is about me. I can't help but fall over myself in front of the camera practically. There were definitely fights in the editing room between my brother and I. We knew there was a better story there and that's where the drama was. I realized half-way through editing that this was so perfect -- it is a band of brothers (along with singer Matt Berninger, The National is made up of twins Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner and brothers Bryan Devendorf and Scott Devendorf) and I'm the only brother who is not in the band. I kind of felt like I was a wrecking ball in the situation. I don't want to make the assumption that you didn't or don't like the music that your brother and The National make, but did your perception of the music that your brother made change over the time you spent together?

Certainly. But I have to say that I don't listen to them recreationally; I'm just not into that type of music. I'm more into heavy metal. I have enough friends who listen to them and who listen to indie rock to get my fill. I respect the music because I know how hard it is to go out there every single night and do what they do. I respect anybody who has a fan base; I respect Miley Cyrus. It is hard to get to the point where people actually buy your music, so I respect anything that people find great. I'm not into country music, but I respect it. It is hard to get noticed and if you can have fans -- that's it.

The film talks about your and Matt's relationship growing up, but not much about your relationship as adults. Were you close when we reached out and asked you to join the band on tour?

Before tour we would talk once every six months, maybe -- Christmas and maybe the summer, if he came back to Cincinnati. But all through my formative years -- I mean, when I was eight or nine he took off for college. So when I was becoming a teenager, not that he was gone on purpose, but he was through college and trying to make it in New York as a graphic designer at first. Not that he wasn't interested in me, but I wasn't even interested in him -- I didn't give a shit about what he was doing and I'm sure he didn't give a shit about what I was doing, necessarily.

I think he cared about me a little more because he had a little bit more perspective, but when I was like sixteen, I couldn't care less what my brother was doing. When we were little kids, he would take me to see movies and stuff -- he really got me to love and appreciate movies. Even when I was really little, I was like five or six and he was a teenager, he would talk somewhat intelligently to me about Predator. He just got me to love movies.

I had definitely gone in a certain direction and he had gone in a certain direction and I tell you what, it was hard. In my high school years, I began to understand that my brother and my sister -- we have a sister who is older than us -- were good in school and made all the right decisions. It seemed like I was making all the wrong decisions and I was really never jealous of him, but it seemed like my brother was creating these tough shoes to fill. I was definitely getting depressed about that -- I knew that I could never be as cool as my brother. He was in New York and I was in Cincinnati. He was starting this indie rock band and I was kind of going nowhere.

Did you get closer as a result of filming?

Oh, yeah. I mean we were literally on a tour bus, which is very close quarters. I got to see him -- I mean it took the mystique out of my brother. I would see him (performing) every single night -- he would screw up sometimes on stage. He would forget lyrics and kind of mumble through a song. He would screw up and get yelled at by his bandmates and I realized that it is a job. And they love their job. But I realized that they didn't do anything special -- they aren't really smarter than me or anyone else -- they are just all good at guitar and my brother is good at writing songs and singing them and they risk everything. And it kind of paid off.

I just realized that there is nothing special about success; it is just about doing it.

Mistaken For Strangers opens this Friday, April 18 at the Sie FilmCenter; Tom Berninger will be present as a special guest for post-screening Q&A sessions following the 7:20 p.m. and 9:40 p.m. showings. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Sie's website. Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies

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