Naked And Unvarnished: The National’s Mistaken For Strangers Doc Takes An Intimate Look At Life On The Road

by (@emilyexton)

Mistaken for Strangers Tom and Matt Berninger

What was the moment that you thought this movie could be about you and your relationship with your brother?

TB: Matt’s wife Carin [Besser, a producer on the film] really forced me to really look at myself, and look at myself objectively. That was when I realized what the movie was going to be. But on tour, it’s when I’d film the guys sleeping on the bus in their little bunks that look like coffins and they look like they’re all dead. I felt like I want to get this in the movie and whatever I make, this is something interesting because it’s a rock band in the most vulnerable and most uncool state you can be in: sobbing, dead asleep. I wanted to get that because I thought I would be the only person who would have the ability to get that without getting into too much trouble.

As his brother, how did it feel for you to see those kind of moments of him breaking down a little bit and being more vulnerable and talking about your relationship?

MB: I didn’t actually have that much interest in there being a movie that was a profile of a band on tour. I’ve seen a bunch of those and I didn’t feel like we needed one of those. So when it started to be more about Tom, that’s when I really got behind the movie. And that was after he moved in with us, but that’s really when I started cheerleading the thing in a whole different way and just helping. He and my wife had dove in and raised the bar to make something much more interesting than we expected. That’s when I got excited.

Since you had so much footage, what was the most difficult part about editing?

TB: I was at the table physically cutting for about a year and a half. I was the only person who knew the footage and I would craft scene after scene after scene and 90 percent of them just didn’t work. Carin and I eventually got a big giant structure on the board but then I had to step away because I couldn’t do anymore. I think we got the tone and humor right, but as far as tightening it, somebody else from outside had to come in.
MB: You guys had a slightly-over two hour version of it that we got lucky enough to show Fred Armisen because Brandon was actually tour managing the Portlandia tour two years ago. And Fred was really supportive. He said, “Listen, you guys might have a movie here, but you need an editor. Portlandia, this show is garbage without our editors.” There were times along the way where we thought we didn’t have anything, but ultimately that whole thing was a huge lesson in perseverance and patience I think we all needed that.
TB: It was hard to hear when Fred Armisen [said that]. I knew it wasn’t done, but there was always that hope because we love that show so much and he’s hilarious. He was like, “It’s not there yet, guys.” We were hoping he’d be like, “This is brilliant!”
MB: “This could be really great.”

What do you think of this current trend of artists really pushing their brand and promoting every aspect of themselves through albums, documentaries, social media?

MB: I think people have been doing it forever. The Beatles were doing all kinds of little movies with A Hard Days Night and stuff. I do think now that this idea of a profile film like Beyoncé’s film — I haven’t seen [Justin] Bieber’s — makes total sense. But we didn’t want anything like that; we didn’t want a promotional piece, and those all seem like they’re promotional materials. And if we did want one, we probably would not have hired my brother to do it. I think this movie says more about the band than any kind of profile film would or could have or anything. This is the band movie. We’re not going to make another one.

Would you classify this as a music documentary?

TB: No, no. You don’t want to because people will get disappointed because there’s not that much music in it.
MB: I think the best music documentaries aren’t just about the music, you know? I asked Tom if he had seen Gimme Shelter and he was like, “Yeah! But some guy gets murdered in that.” That didn’t happen here, and he was like, “I wish something like that would happen here.”
TB: I don’t wish someone would get murdered, but something like murder.
MB: There will be National fans that are disappointed at the movie.
TB: Absolutely. There are National fans that are disappointed.
MB: Our drummer’s naked in it. What else do they want?

Mistaken For Strangers is available on iTunes, VOD and in theaters on March 28.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]