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

Most of us can hardly share a room with our younger siblings, let alone a cramped tour bus. So what was The National front man Matt Berninger thinking when he invited his younger brother Tom along for his band’s High Violet tour? And what can happen when someone who has never made a documentary before decides to film every waking hour on the road? Much more than anyone anticipated.

For starters, working with a sibling is never easy — particularly if that sibling has the ability to knock an awning off of an awning store. By spending so much time with his older brother, Tom discovered the most interesting story was one about himself and their family. What resulted is his film Mistaken For Strangers, which opened the Tribeca Film Festival last spring and is getting a wide release on March 28. It’s the non-music music documentary that tells a tale of brotherhood and ambition — with the occasional glimpse of rock star normalcy — and the project that helped take an out-of-work video editor from Cincinnati to a New York City red carpet next to Robert DeNiro.

VH1 spoke to the brothers Berninger about their first professional collaboration, which is worlds away from their childhood days spent arguing about horror movies on the Ohio black top.

What was more intimidating for you: playing to arena crowds and being on Saturday Night Live or putting yourself on display in this documentary?

Matt Berninger: Well, the movie is far more intimate than all that other stuff. When we perform live we’re unguarded — I’m definitely unguarded and a little bit vulnerable. But I’m singing songs and it’s set to music and there are cool lights and everything. The film is a very unvarnished thing, so it’s very different. To be perfectly honest with you, we were nervous about what [Tom] was doing when he told us that he was going to turn it into a movie. We thought it would just be goofy web stuff that we could totally curate and choose what we wanted to show.|
Tom Berninger: He says “unvarnished,” I like the term “surreal buffoonery.” An Australian called it that.
MB: Why do you like that?
TB: I like that more than “unvarnished.”
MB: You would describe the movie as varnished?
TB: No, I would call it low-fi containing some surreal buffoonery.

What’s your first memory of collaborating together?

TB: When Matt was still living at home — you were probably in your teens — I was about seven, and I remember vividly sitting out on our driveway at night and we would talk about movies. At the time, we didn’t have cable — I was always so jealous of my friends who had Nickelodeon and MTV — so my brother got my family a VCR and I was able to watch all these terrible movies he would bring home.
MB: Because I worked at a video store.
TB: Yeah. He would bring home like Die Hard. Either action movies or John Hughes’ movies. But I just loved the action movies and I loved all that stuff. And I think we just talked about movies a lot. And I think, even back then, I always wanted to be a director. Because I love Schwarzenegger movies. I think Predator was a big one.
MB: We had a black-top driveway. In the summer it stayed warm until after the sun went down. It was fun.

Tom, what did you set out to do when given the opportunity to join the band on the road?

TB: I was working for a while at a TV station in Cincinnati. It was a great job, but I quit that; I didn’t know what I was going to do. I kind of wanted to move to New York and at the time Matt’s like, “Well, we’re going to go on tour, you should come shoot. You should make a movie. You should do stuff for us.” And I thought it was a great idea because it would get my reel going again. I would basically ride on their coattails. I really just wanted to use their success to maybe put out some funny videos on their website. I could not necessarily interview bands, but video content: I can do video content. That was really the only reason why I brought a camera along at first.

Did inviting Tom along require some convincing on behalf of the other guys in the band?

MB: No, not the other guys in the band. The truth is, everybody has liked Tom for a long time and everybody loved the idea of Tom coming along. They all have their brothers so I think they thought, “Oh, hey, yeah. That’s cool. That’ll complete the circle” or something like that. Brandon [Reid, the tour manager] was not crazy about it because he was a little stressed out. Tom’s first job was to pull a van up to the sidewalk so we could unload gear into the venue. Tom went and pulled the van up too early and he tore the awning off the front of a store that was next to the venue. That was literally the first day. And the funniest part about that was that it was actually an awning store that he took the awning off of. So Tom’s first half an hour of work cost us like $3,000, which was three month’s pay for [Tom]. So Brandon from day one was put in a very difficult spot, and so was Tom because it’s a really hard job. But the rest of the band really loved having Tom around, even with the awning debacle. I loved having Tom around, until the time that he started driving me bananas, but even through that it was nice having somebody to vent to. I wish Tom were on tour with us again, now. Everybody was happy with him around. They didn’t know what he was going to do. No one thought he was going to make a real movie [and] neither did I.

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]