VOD Spotlight: Matt & Tom Berninger (MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS)March 26, 2014

VOD Spotlight: Matt & Tom Berninger (MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS)


Mistaken for Strangers, which opened the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, follows Tom Berninger, a slacker and aspiring horror director whose older brother Matt is the lead singer of successful rock band The National. When Matt hires Tom as a roadie for the band’s upcoming world tour, Tom brings his camera to film the entire experience, ignoring his job responsibilities in the process. What follows is a hilarious and touching story about family, ambition and self-discovery.


On Demand Weekly spoke with the film's director Tom Berninger and his brother Matt, lead singer of the film's initial subject, the band The National.



On Demand Weekly (ODW): When did you know the Tom’s footage had the makings to become a documentary?
Tom Berninger, filmmaker (TB):
It was the editing process. We took more of The National out of the movie and more of me in it. When we saw me crying on screen and me getting drunk on the bus, which I originally filmed that to be really funny and it ended up being really pathetic and sad. The movie came together in the editing room.

There were a few times on tour that I thought the things I was shooting was interesting.

ODW: When did the rest of the band know and what was their reaction?
Matt Berninger, lead singer (MB):
When Tom came on tour, there wasn’t an intention to make a documentary. Maybe he could make a silly little, fun video that we could put up on our website. There wasn’t the idea of a documentary and that’s probably why they let Tom so close. If the band had known Tom was going to make a feature film that he was going to enter into the Tribeca Film Festival, I bet they would have said no.


MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS - Tribeca Film Festival 2013 Opening Night Premiere

When they heard it was as much a story about Tom than of the band, even more so about Tom, they were like 'that sounds cool'. That’s the way I was too. I like the story of Tom’s creative struggles, relationships between brothers (Editor's Note: in addition to Matt and Tom being brothers, the band’s other four members are a set of 2 brothers) was actually a much better idea for a movie than a profile of a band on tour. I think the rest of the band did as well.

But if they had known that at the beginning that it was going to be a feature movie, Brian would not have let Tom into the shower with him (a scene in the movie), that’s for sure.

ODW: Would it have been a vote? What if one band member had objected?
That is a good question. That was always a reality down to the very last minute. There wasn’t ever a full on agreement. And then all of a sudden it got accepted into Tribeca to open the festival, at that point Tom was like ‘Guys, is that okay?’ It was almost too late for anyone to say no.



Everybody loved the movie. When they saw it, they couldn’t believe how good it was and got behind it. It was a giant gamble that Tom took.

TB: My strategy is to...


...corner them,

overwhelm them and

pressure them.

My strategy paid off... 

...And plus I had Brian (the drummer) naked in the shower and half the band members naked in my footage. I could always blackmail them (Matt is laughing).

MB: Very professional Tom (Matt jokes).

ODW: Tom, had you ever traveled or worked on a tour for The National previously?
No. Never, ever. When they’d come to Cincinnati I’d come see them. I have to say, for the first time on tour I really got the luxury treatment, considering they spent the first four albums in a van. I go to go on the tour bus, which I took advantage of. I missed the whole van tours and nine years of their existence, I might as well drink heavily on the tour bus and live it up there.

ODW: Matt, what prompted you to ask Tom to join you for the High Violet tour?

MB: He (Tom) graduated from film school, but was in between jobs and I saw he needed a break. He was in a little bit of a rut and I thought it would be good for him to get out of Cincinnati. And a big part of it was I missed him. I went off to college when he was nine years old (there is an nine year difference between the two brothers, who shared a room growing up). And then I moved to New York. We hadn’t been together a whole lot for twenty years.


I was envious of the rest of the guys (in the band) traveling the world with their brothers and having this experience. We were about to go on this big tour and we needed some help. Brandon the tour manager needed an assistant tour manager and I put those two things together and brought Tom along. I didn’t expect Tom to make this movie.

Everything ended up working out strangely better than anyone expected in a better way than anyone expected. Now Brandon loves tom. Brandon loves the movie. The band loves the movie. And Tom and I became much closer through the whole process. It got really bad for a long time, but it came out on the other side and we’re all really about it.

ODW: Tom, you have referenced MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS not as a documentary but as a Werner Herzog hybrid of a documentary and a self-portrait. Can you explain how this influenced the shooting and/or editing of the film?
Definitely the editing. We cut it for comedy. We took moments out of context to make them work better. I thought about Werner Herzog, who makes incredible documentaries and sometimes finds the truth and the profound truth by his editing by his interpretation of these things. And I thought the same thing with this movie. We were finding a greater truth.

ODW: Did any rock documentary influence the making of this film?
Not really. My brother corners me on screen if I had seen any rock documentaries and I really haven’t. I like AMERICAN MOVIE. HANDS ON A HARD BODY. I like the funny documentaries. I had no rock doc in mind.

MB: I told Tom when he was pulling together footage to make some sort of narrative you can do anything with this thing. You should watch GIMME SHELTER. It’s a documentary about the Rolling Stones, but it’s actually more of a documentary about the end of the 60’s and the glamor of rock. Tom’s reaction to that was they got lucky, some guy got murdered. Which is a dark expression that they just got “lucky”. And Tom said ‘nobody got killed in my footage. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do’. 

Thankfully nobody was murdered and Tom found some other story that is more than just a simple band profile.

ODW: THIS IS SPINAL TAP just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Were there any Spinal Tap moments in the film or on the tour?
Being Europe was the most amazing thing for me. We were in Germany and there was a performer named Peaches I wasn’t familiar with. Peaches has an incredible stage.

MB: There’s so much boring, embarrassing, boring things that happen on tour for any rock band. The monotony. SPINAL TAP shows how humiliating and unflattering life inside a rock band can be. So I do think the movie is similar in that way.



The National

...And Tom, whether you know,

you kind of are a SPINAL TAP-esque figure.


You even wear the (rib cage) T shirt. There’s definitely parallels with this move and SPINAL TAP (they both chuckle). You partly knew you were going to make an embarrassing comedy. You weren’t trying to make a SPINAL TAP, but it is a close cousin for sure.



TB: That’s probably a better answer than my answer.

ODW: The film played very well to fans of the band at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere What would you like to tell people less familiar with The National who come across MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS on demand?
I think it appeals to families and siblings and anybody searching for their place in life. You don’t have to be a fan of The National or to be young. I hope it gives people inspiration. The way you make it in life might not be the way you originally intended. I thought I was going to be a horror movie director, but this movie came out of nowhere and I really discovered myself in it. I hope this gives other people hope. It’s a great sibling movie too.

ODW: I tweeted the Tribeca Film Festival premiere is a “must see movie for brothers.” Tell our readers why this is more than a rock documentary.
There are a lot of people who go in or are dragged to the movie who don’t like The National…

ODW: ...Who doesn’t like the National?!?
There’s plenty out there.
TB: (interjects) I don’t.

MB: That’s one of the biggest compliments the film has gotten. That people who don’t like our band or indie rock really like the movie.

The other thing we’ve heard that has been flattering, somehow in the world of counselors and psychologists, that they have been recommending the movie to people having troubles with siblings and families. It’s a movie about how families react to each other.

Comedian Pete Holmes heard about it from his therapist. I don’t know how they got it.

The movie is not about a band.

ODW: You’re from Cincinnati. March Madness begins today. How far do the University of Cincinnati Bearcats go?
: I’m 100% positive they’re going to win the whole thing. What are we talking about?

ODW: The national college basketball tournament.
They’re going to kill everybody on the court. In all sports. They’re going to take back Crimea.

(Editor’s Note: Sadly, the University of Cincinnati lost in the first round to the lower seeded Harvard. Maybe this will inspire a future song by The National.)

ODW: How is it different doing press for a film vs an album?
It's much different. Mostly because Tom has to answer all the hard questions. Also, answering questions about music kind of always ruins the music a tiny bit. Movies are a little more resilient.

ODW: Can you suggest a National playlist to listen to after someone sees MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS?

1. Bloodbuzz Ohio
2. I Should Live in Salt (inspired by my relationship with Tom)
3. Mr. November
4. Terrible Love
5. Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
6. Rob Halford's Oh Holy Night




- Britt Bensen

Britt is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-founder of On Demand Weekly. He is currently at OnCue. Previously, Britt worked for Miramax Films and Sundance Channel


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