“Mistaken for Strangers” opens with Matt Berninger — the bearded, soft-spoken frontman of hit band The National — irritated. His brother, Tom, is making a movie about them as they set out on their biggest ever tour, but he obviously hasn’t thought it through. “Do you have a notebook?” he charges, annoyed. “Do you have any organization for this film?”
As it happens, there was no plan for the film that ultimately became "Mistaken for Strangers," at least not going in. “When I first started out, I just wanted the use their popularity to make something for my reel,” Tom admits. (His previous work was low budget horror films, which in the film he screens to his bro's bandmates, to their horror.) “The whole band was fine with me bringing a camera along. They were like, ‘It’ll be fun to just sort of look back at ourselves.’ It was mainly home video.”
“I was fine with it,” Matt confirms. "It was a fun distraction from the monotony and anxiety of touring.”
"Mistaken for Strangers," named after a song off their album "Boxer," blossomed into something else: a look at sibling rivalry, from the point of view of a struggling artist about his wildly successful brother; a portrait of the drag of touring; a goofball comedy about a very serious band, known for broody numbers whose sense of humor is a little more subtle. It’s also about its own making (and almost un-making). You watch as random episodes from road life make way for something more serious.
Matt recalls how, for awhile, Tom would have them do something madcap, in the style of “A Hard Day’s Night” and The Monkees. “Most of that goofball stuff was only fun for us, but my wife was like, ‘It’s cute but it’s annoying after five minutes,” he says. His wife, Carin Bresser, a onetime New Yorker editor who helped direct their video for “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” is credited as an editor (with Tom). She, Matt says, helped steer the film’s structure more toward the ugly stuff.
Tom wanted to capture a rowdy band on the road, but would often find himself drinking alone on the bus. Tom admits that some of his footage was shot while he was boozing, thinking it would be funny for everyone to see. One of these includes him shooting the band sleeping, in bus beds he describes as looking like coffins. “I felt like only I, a brother, or someone very close to the band, could just rip open their curtain,” Tom says. “Not that I watched a lot of rock docs, but I’ve never seen even a movie star or celebrity sleeping — just being watched. Only a creepy person would do that. I felt like I was the only person who could get away with that.”
Though he may not have felt this way at the time, Matt is happy that their first official doc is nothing like a traditional rock doc. “I think there will be a concert film soon, but we didn’t have any interest in a profile of the band,” he confesses. “You can read a million interviews, but I think in many respects this film is a better portrait of us as people, our dynamic and how we work together and what our life is like.”
Matt says Bryce Dessner, their guitarist and keyboardist, thought it felt even more appropriate than that. “He said it felt like a National song: It’s weird, it’s earnest, it’s silly but also dark in some places.”
It also helped bring the brothers closer. (This works especially since the other four members of the band are two sets of brothers.) They haven’t always been close: Tom is a metalhead, not an indie rocker. “I like horror movies,” Tom says. “[Matt] doesn’t, but one thing we both love is comedies.” Tom has since decided to pursue acting in addition to filmmaking, particularly since both he and Matt, a longtime Brooklyner, are now Los Angelinos.
Either way, Matt does think he has talent, in some way. Turning to Tom, Matt tells him, a big, knowing smile on his face, “The way you see the universe is sometimes just funny.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge