Interview: The National's Matt Berninger & Filmmaker Tom Berninger | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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The National’s Matt Berninger and Filmmaker Tom Berninger Discuss Mistaken For Strangers

A Tale Of Two Brothers

Mar 27, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Mistaken For Strangers is unlike any rock documentary you’ve ever seen. Both moving and highly entertaining, the film focuses less on the band it features than it does on the relationship between two brothers: Tom and Matt Berninger, the former a filmmaker, and the latter front-man of indie rock giants The National.

Four years ago, The National was ready to embark on what was to that point the longest and largest world tour of their career. Lead singer Matt Berninger invited along his brother, Tom, to help out on the tour. His band is comprised of two sets of siblings—musicians Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf—but Matt couldn’t be more different than his own brother. Tom, nine years younger and a devout heavy metal fan, brought his camera along on the road. As the tensions rose, the footage he captured revealed as much about himself and about family as it does the band he set out to document.

The resulting film, Mistaken For Strangers, opens March 28th in theaters, on demand, and on iTunes. The brothers Berninger spoke with us about the project.

Austin Trunick [Under The Radar]: Matt, you hired your brother to come on tour basically as a roadie. How serious at the beginning did you think he was about making a film out of the experience?

Matt Berninger: The truth is, really not at all. We mostly hired Tom to get him out of Cincinnati, and because I missed him. I wanted him around, and I thought it would be fun. I did encourage him to bring his camera, and he wanted to, but the idea he had—and that I was supportive of—was that he’d make some web content, or maybe a video for one of our songs. Or maybe even a tour diary or something that we could put on our website. I think Tom maybe also saw this as an opportunity to get some content for his reel.

Tom Berninger: Really, there was no documentary at all. I simply wanted to use everything—maybe their rising success—to make something that would boost my profile as a videographer, basically, for web content. I would do videos for people’s websites. That’s what my initial goal was.

At what point did you realize you had a full documentary on your hands?

Tom: You know, throughout the tour I thought there was some interesting stuff, like when I was drunk on the bus, or when I filmed the band members sleeping. I had an idea that if I—the filmmaker—would be a part of my own thing, that might be a weird and interesting thing to do. But basically, it wasn’t until the editing process with Carin, my brother’s wife, who helped me edit the whole thing in the early days. She saw me drunk on the bus, and what I thought was going to be hilarious turned out to be really depressing and sad. I didn’t really want it in there, but she felt it was some of the best stuff. So she convinced me to put it in. There was some stuff with me crying that was really hard for me to watch, but she forced me to watch it. It was really a reality check for me, to realize that I was part of my own movie. But it was mainly during the editing process when we decided to throw me in there.

It was interesting to me because it’s probably the first rock documentary I’ve seen that only co-stars the band it’s featuring.

Tom: Honestly, in the early days of editing that was something we talked about a lot. We weren’t sure how people would swallow a National documentary that’s not about The National. It’s really about somebody in the band’s fat, younger brother.

Matt: The band, actually – when they found out Tom was making a movie about the band, they got really nervous. But when they found out the movie was actually starting to be more about Tom, they started relaxing and getting more behind it. I think all of us—me, included, and the rest of the band—thought, well, that could be fun. We’d like to see a movie more about Tom than about ourselves, anyway. So when that shift happened, I think that’s when the band and everybody got behind it.

At the beginning of the film, there’s a clip of Matt doing a radio interview, where he’s asked about his brother. He basically says he’s a metalhead who thinks indie rock is bullshit. I wanted to ask you, Tom, if those are your real feelings on indie rock?

Tom: Well, I don’t listen to it. I think Matt said that as a joke to get a laugh, but it is true. I don’t really see it as pretentious, but I don’t find it interesting. Well, I guess I find it kind of pretentious and slightly annoying. You know, there’s so much good music out there. I love heavy metal. There are enough indie rockers out there that I’m happy not to be one.

Were your interests so different growing up? We see pictures of you two fishing together as kids, and of Matt playing baseball. Later, we hear about you quitting baseball from your mother. Was that you trying to follow in your older brother’s footsteps?

Tom: I know this was somewhat self-defeating, but I knew I could never follow in my brother’s footsteps because he was nine years older than me. But when I became a teenager, and started becoming my own person, I saw that my brother was becoming very, very successful, and I knew I was not traveling down that same track. I started to think about why my brother did everything right, and how I did everything wrong. To me, what he was doing was so improbable and impossible to even dream that I was never jealous. It was a tale of two brothers, definitely. One was successful, and one wasn’t. I was sort of living that lifestyle for most of my 20s, and I did get kind of depressed. But I was never bitter. It was just like, maybe I never tried hard enough? I just never really understood why my brother was successful and I wasn’t.

My next question is for Matt. In your position, you have obligations to what is pretty much three different families: your biological family, your own wife and daughter, and your band. What are the biggest challenges when it comes to balancing those three groups?

Matt: That’s a good question, and now I’ve realized why I’m always so stressed out. The truth is, the band is a weird kind of family, that’s full of all kinds of conflict. When Tom came on tour, it was a good, healthy way for me to gain perspective on all of them. The band means so much to me, but so does my family when it comes to my brother. That alleviated some of the pressure of when you get into this tunnel-vision about the inter-personal stresses and the stress of touring in the band. It pulls you out of that thing, so that you can see it with more perspective and appreciate it more, and vice versa.

My relationship with Tom, when it came to the band stuff, he was somebody I could vent to. And then when Tom moved in with my nuclear family—with my wife, daughter, and I—that’s a whole other extension of family. It can be very toxic at times, but ultimately having all of those people connected has helped me though all of them, in a way. I mean, my daughter absolutely loves Tom, and I love the fact that my brother is here in the house and has such a close relationship with my daughter. And I love how all the members of the band now have a close relationship with my brother. I think they all have very different dynamics, but I think in some way they support each other, and it’s healthy.

Our whole band’s that way; the family aspect, with the other two sets of brothers, has added an extra little layer of glue that has helped hold this band together. It’s a weird thing, because in some ways you don’t want to mix your work life with your family life too much, but in our case that’s just the way it happened, and I think it’s good for both. It makes the families closer, and it makes the art better.

I think it’s safe to assume your full approval of the film, given your support in helping Tom finish it towards the end and the fact that it’s being released. But at any point were you worried about how it might portray you or the band?

Matt: Yes, I was worried. The whole band was worried. We were worried about two things. One, we knew that Tom had a lot of unflattering stuff. Not unflattering as in controversial or salacious so much as it was just embarrassing, little, stupid stuff. So everyone in the band was concerned when Tom said he was trying to make a feature documentary. All of sudden, everybody’s mind was on that. Bryan immediately thought, “Oh, shit. Tom’s got me in the shower.” Aaron and Bryce were thinking that Tom has them looking like idiots, trying to pick up their sunglasses or whatever it was. All of those things, when Tom shot them, everybody in the band said, well, Tom, we support whatever you’re doing, but don’t use any of that.

When Tom was starting to pull this stuff together, he was using all of the stuff the band members—including me—told him not to use. Those were the things he was making this movie with and if we had known that, we probably would have pulled the plug right away. But when Tom was putting together the movie in my house with my wife, and when I saw how much unflattering, weird stuff of Tom they were putting in there, I could see what they were doing. I got very excited about it, and I thought they were making something much more interesting than any of us expected.

I did advise them—and maybe it’s my fault—that we get this working first before the rest of the band sees it. Because if they saw it and it wasn’t working, and Bryan sees himself in the shower out of context, that might not be a good thing. So it was a little bit of a gamble. The truth is, everyone in the band knew they could veto the movie completely, and put it on the shelf. I think nobody in the band wanted to get to that point where they had to tell Tom, “What you made is interesting, but we’re killing it.” There was a high-tension wire that was being walked up until the very end, but when the band saw it, they loved it. They understood what the movie was about, and I think everybody was immediately like, this is great. This is a movie that fits our band.

My last question is for Tom. What are you up to now that the film is finished? And how do you intend to follow it up?

Tom: Right now we’re working on finishing putting out this movie, and I hope to move into my own apartment soon. I’m going to try some acting lessons. And I’m working on something else, but it’s going to be very different, because I can’t ever repeat what I did with this movie.

Mistaken For Strangers opens March 28th in select theaters, on demand, and on iTunes. Find out more about the film at


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