The National’s frontman Matt Berninger invites his slacker, louche, unemployed filmmaker brother, Tom, on the road.
Tom takes his camera and stirs up a whole heap of antagonism.
Warning; some band mystique was harmed during filming.
The National have ploughed their gloom-drenched smart-suited indie rock for over fifteen years now. For the unitiated, their big commercial breakthrough came with 2007’s Boxer, an album which went on to feature in many best-of-the-year lists and garnered considerable attention.
Ever since, this rise has continued unabated. In the UK, it has even culminated in a festival headlining performance at Latitude in 2011. Currently basking in their well-received 2013 long-player, Trouble Will Find Me, they have become the subject of that most well-travelled of mid-career band exercises; the documentary film.
It is with considerable pleasure to report that this is no tired VH1: Behind the Music exploration of band affairs. No, this is a warts-and-all expose like no other. A film with a genuine sense of friction and precariousness.
It all starts when Tom Berninger is invited by his brother, The National’s lead singer Matt, to join the band on their European tour in a roadie capacity.
Tom is restless soul. Classing himself as a filmmaker, he has a history of making surreal, low-budget slasher movies of niche concern. The opportunity provided by Matt will therefore not only allow the two of them to spend some quality time together, but to give Tom – and his wayward and ill-disciplined spirit – some vital lessons in responsibility.
What isn’t anticipated is Tom’s nosey camera going into places where it is not wanted. Whenever he can, he unleashes a flurry of left-field questions to perplexed band members in off-the-cuff interviews. In the process, he manages to stir up a whole load of ire and disapproval, which has the cumulative effect of singlehandedly dismantling any of the band’s enigma. If this all sounds like a disaster, then it is the marvel of this film that the motifs begin to take on a higher meaning; it turns out to be a perceptive look at the mechanics of intra-family and intra-band relationships.
Whereas recent music documentaries like Shane Meadows’ Made of Stone shied away from rancour, MIstaken For Strangers is a triumph through pulling very much in the opposite direction.
It is a brave move and one that must have felt like a big gamble to release. Especially for the band. After all, this is no blind hagiography. Yet the deconstruction of the rock n’ roll cliche ultimately affords new-found respect for this indie group.
Ultimately, it is a success for everyone involved; a scathing, unique, exceptional and brilliant (music) documentary.
SEE BELOW FOR OUR INTERVIEW WITH MATT BERNINGER AND TOM BERNINGER ON THE FILM AND MORE.
Here’s the trailer for Mistaken For Strangers:
Matt Berninger and Tom Berninger Interview
Supajam: Matt, have you seen any of Tom’s films in the past? If so, what did you make of them?
Matt: Yeah, his horror films are shorts…
Tom: (interjecting)…but they seem really long when you’re watching them though…!
Matt: They’re funny, interesting and bizarre. I would not have necessarily hired Tom to make a documentary about our band based on his previous films. I like his other films, but when Tom came on tour, it was mostly because he needed a job, he’d never been to Europe and I missed him. I didn’t really hire Tom as a filmmaker.
I did encourage him to bring the camera so that maybe he could make some goofy stuff for our website but if I had known that his intention was to make a proper feature-length film, I don’t know how supportive I would have been of that. Then, with what happened along the way, having him around and with him having so much stuff, then I thought, ‘yeah, you should make something out of this’, and in many ways it did turn into a little bit of a horror story! Weirdly, he did become the appropriate choice for making this film.
Tom: There is a scene in the movie where I shoot all the guys sleeping in the bus and for me, I did that for multiple reasons. For one, by being his brother, I am the one guy who can get away with doing that without getting arrested for an invasion of privacy, but I also just thought that if you’re lucky enough to be on a band bus, there are little sleeping areas that look like coffins. I felt like it was so weird and morbid. They looked like dead bodies laying in there. There is definitely some weird horror elements to the movie, I think.
Supajam: With how everything turned out, has your relationship changed since the film?
Tom: It has, we’ve grown closer. We were stuck in a bus so close together and I had to learn to be an adult pretty quickly. I think that in the making of this movie, I think my brother saw that I wasn’t that 12 year old anymore, I’m a 30/31 year old. I think it was a wake-up call to my brother, and also in making this movie a wake-up call for my life for me to take myself seriously and my brother forced me to take myself seriously.
Matt: For me, through this whole process, I stopped thinking of Tom as my little brother and started seeing him more as a peer, another adult who just has a very different way in the world than what I do, and I stopped trying shape him and do some version of me.
Supajam: Do you think it was the prism of film and the distance of that final product that enabled you to have a perspective in that regard?
Matt: Yes, I think that seeing our dynamic – and my wife helped my brother edit it – and just seeing all that ugly stuff from a perspective is like seeing a photo of yourself but times ten. For me, it made me think that I need to relax more. I have a very short temper and I get mad and I blow up at things. Watching the film, and there was a lot of stuff that you didn’t see in the film, but seeing all that footage as it was being pieced together… it gave me a better sense of… I need to chill out a little more.
I think Tom saw a different thing. He realised that he needs to get his shit together and in the process of making the film, he did.
Supajam: The film sees your mum and dad comment to you, Tom, on how they handled the disparate fortunes of you both whilst growing up and even now. Was that particularly insightful for you?
Tom: Well, my parents are great in the movie, but it was always tough. When my mum says I was her most talented or creative or whatever, she’s been saying that since I was 13. It’s so hard to live up to something like that and when you’re brother literally becomes a rock star, it doesn’t ring true, when I’m still struggling to become a filmmaker and my brother is playing in front of thousands and thousands of people. It just seems like they’re feeding me a load of bullshit.
I do know that they’re saying that because they love me and I think my mum truly does believe that I am the most creative but I still don’t think so. I was curious about what they thought.
Supajam: Did Matt and the band have final veto and say on what made the film and what didn’t?
Tom: Yeah, he and the band had final veto, for sure. To be honest, I think I got away with almost everything, because my filmmaking style is to not show anybody anything until it’s too late (chuckles). The only thing that I think I made sure of is that I didn’t want to make fun of the lyrics or the music. We know that certain people take the lyrics and the music very, very seriously. It has helped people through really tough times and we didn’t want to make fun of them or the music.
That was honestly the only thing we cared about. We just didn’t want to make fun of the music. There are too many people out there that truly feel that the National is very special to them and we didn’t want to make fun of that.
Supajam: With this film, Matt, it feels as though you’ve redefined what it is to be rock n’ roll because a lot of the mystic and enigma is stripped away. You have also allowed yourself to be portrayed in a way that is frequently unflattering. Maybe by doing this, it is a bit of a punk rock move and ironically the most rock n’ roll thing you could have done?
Matt: Well, the truth is I was nervous about that. The whole band was. The bands and musicians that I love, I don’t actually want to know too much about them. I don’t want the mystery to be taken away because it’s fun to have these mysterious figures that you revere in an artful way, so we knew this movie would be extremely revealing and maybe shattering any preconceived idea of what the National is or what I am. We knew that was going to, in many ways, undermine the cool mystique a little bit.
That was something that we thought, ‘maybe it’s not such a great idea’. Ultimately, the thing is that it does do that, but it also does other things that I think are actually a bit of a higher calling than whatever silly rock star posturing or image or brand that our band may have.
The movie itself is kind of like a National song. It digs into the ugly, uncomfortable things of what it is to be a person in the world. It’s kind-of the perfect movie for our band because our songs are often unflattering about people. Our songs expose a lot of awkward, raw humanity or at least they attempt to. The fact that the movie did that, it was hard for us to argue with it, because it’s been in our DNA and our ethos since the very beginning. So, the movie will sit right there with it.
Supajam: Did the catharsis of the experience spark any creativity?
Matt: For me, seeing Tom struggle to make something and then him moving in with my family to try and finish something, it just made me realise again how hard it is to do anything. Making a movie…. well, Scott (Devendorf – bassist) says it in the movie, when we’re making records, we’re making 45 minutes of sound, you know? So my brother was trying to make something much longer than that. It’s sound and image and then it also has to have a narrative structure, an arc and all of that stuff. Whereas, with our records, they don’t have to, they can go in 20 different directions and they don’t even necessarily have to keep your attention.
With making a full length film, I couldn’t believe how difficult it was and I was totally inspired by Tom and the fact that he saw it through and got through to the other side of this creative challenge. It made me respect all of it a bit more; the band, the process of making records and then my brother’s process. He’s a very different type of person to what I am and I learned a lot from him and I think vice versa.
Supajam: Would you work together again then on that basis?
Both: Noooo! Not at all!
Tom: To be honest, I don’t know. Maybe. Whether my brother likes it or not, the movie had me closer to him. I think we’ll always be connected, especially with this movie. If my brother wanted to give me an opportunity to make a movie and then be done with me, it kind-of blew up in his face. The way that this movie has gone, we’ll be connected forever with this movie and he’s got to live with that.
Matt: I would love to work with Tom on another project. Not about our band, but I’d love to continue to work with Tom creatively. I think we both became better artists through this process.
Supajam: What’s next for you both?
Matt: The band and I are already talking about making a new record. I don’t know when we’ll start recording, but we’re already thinking of how to do it. We want to change our process and to make a record in a different way than we ever have before.
And Tom and I are working on some stuff together, so there’s going to be a lot coming in the next couple of years, both National-wise and from Tom.
As mentioned previously, Mistaken For Strangers will be released on 27th June 2014.