BIFF: Just give him a camera

How ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ transformed Tom Berninger from a basement dweller into a documentary filmmaker

Nadia Mishkin | Boulder Weekly

The National is a band of brothers. Aaron Dessner, on guitar and keyboard, and his twin brother Bryce, on guitar, are joined by Scott and Bryan Devendorf on bass and drums. Then there’s the odd-man-out: Matt Berninger, lead singer of the indie rock band.

“I do have a brother,” Matt Berninger once explained in an interview, saying that his younger sibling is more of a metal-head who thinks indie rock is “pretentious bullshit.”

However, The National is certainly doing something right. During the group’s 15-year career, the band has enjoyed enormous success and a gained a passionate following, culminating in a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album in 2014.

Back in 2011, Matt Berninger’s band was getting ready to tour Europe in support of its 2010 breakout album High Violet. Meanwhile, his 29-year-old younger brother, Tom Berninger, was living in their parents’ basement. So Matt threw his little brother a bone and invited him to tour with the band as a roadie.

He would no longer be the “brother-less” one in the group.

With a small camera hanging from a lanyard around his neck, Tom Berninger tagged along on tour, planning to make a rock documentary. The result is Mistaken for Strangers, named after the group’s 2007 single. Michael Moore calls it “one of the best music documentaries I have ever seen.”

The National is a five-piece indie rock group recognized by Matt Berninger’s baritone vocals and dark, melancholy lyrics. They originally formed in Cincinnati, Ohio, but are now based out of Brooklyn, N.Y. The group has gained a large following over the years, evidenced by the huge success and popularity launched by the 2007 album The Boxer. A lyric from the album’s single “Mistaken for Strangers” seems to encompass much of the subject matter: “The unmagnificent lives of adults.”

“I was the last person in the world to make a music documentary,” says Tom Berninger, an aspiring horror filmmaker. “I was going through some difficult times in my life before my brother took me on tour. I was really excited, I had never been to Europe before.”

Tom had made a couple of films before. His first was about a barbarian with an identity crisis, called Wages of Sin.

“I don’t follow indie rock,” he says. “I had no experience [with the genre].”

Nobody on the tour seemed to take him seriously enough to predict that the result would actually be a successful documentary. However, Tom was certainly able to capture some impassioned moments with the band, from energetic performances on stage to the reality of their lives on tour.

“People didn’t think [the filming] was anything important, so I was able to access a lot of venues I may not have been able to,” he says. “I got away with a lot.”

Most people seemed to humor him. Whether it was because he was the lead singer’s little brother, or because they never thought he would make a real movie, the band members all were patient with his oft-ridiculous and unprepared interview questions.

“What I really care about is who drools in their sleep and who gets sick on the bus,”

he says. “Those are the things that I find funny. As the lead singer’s younger brother, nobody’s going to yell at me; I can really push the limits. I wasn’t trying to be a pest, but I did have a unique perspective.”

Being on tour with The National didn’t quite live up to the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle that he had imagined.

“These guys are a well-oiled machine,” he explains. “There were no fights to film or anything, so the best stuff I had was me on the bus getting drunk by myself.”

Through Tom’s filming of what goes on behind the scenes, it becomes clear that the band could only put up with his antics for so long. Everyone gets fed up with him shoving his camera in their faces at stressful moments and slacking on his duties as a roadie. His older brother tells him that he has to get his act together and come up with an idea for the film if he wants to stay. Tom begins to wonder what he is doing on tour, living in the shadow of his brother’s spotlight.

“The film certainly evolved. I was in a weird, soul-searching dilemma, not knowing what I wanted to do in life. I had to complete this — finish something I started,” Tom explains. “It’s a very personal movie, a funny doc about me and my brother in the world of indie rock. It was a journey, and a very sobering moment when I realized that I was the subject of my own movie.”

Matt’s wife played a huge role in helping him edit the film.

“She sat behind me and looked over my shoulder and we really narrowed it down to the best stuff,” he says.

The heartwarming and hilarious story of two very different brothers is not just for fans of The National.

“It’s really about us getting to know each other,” Tom says. “My story isn’t finished until the film comes out.”

The documentary will be released to theaters and on demand March 28. But starting in February, Tom will be going to screenings of the film and doing Q&As, making a stop at the Boulder International Film Festival on Saturday, Feb. 15, at the Boulder Theater.