The Big Interview: Tom Berninger, Mistaken For Strangers

How would you feel if your brother was a rock star? Ahead of its debut on Film4, Mistaken For Strangers director Tom Berninger tells us about his awkwardly honest tale of sibling rivalry…

Mistaken For Strangers, released earlier this year, essentially asks: How would you feel if your brother was a rock star? Invited to help out behind the scenes on mega-successful indie band The National’s 2010 world tour by lead singer — and big brother — Matt Berninger, Tom Berninger documents not only the experience of touring, but also a dysfunctional and uneasy sibling relationship.

The film school graduate was unemployed and living with his parents at the time. His brother’s life couldn’t have been more different: his band (compared to an American version of Elbow) was enjoying international success with their latest award-winning album, High Violet, had millions of fans and a sell out tour. Tom accepted the job and took along his camera.

“I really didn’t have time to sit back and say, ‘Okay, people are going to see you, crying, drunk on screen, you’d better be prepared for this!’”

The result? The very honest (and very funny) documentary has been critically acclaimed by everyone from Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Pitchfork, to Judd Apatow. Michael Moore has claimed it is “one of the best documentaries about a band that I’ve ever seen”.

We spoke to a sleepy Tom Berninger over Skype about the film’s amazing success, it’s awkward moments and what it’s like being catapulted into the limelight.

On exposing his emotions and personal failures on screen:

“Totally not part of the original plan. Everything came very organically and slowly. We just knew that the story was slowly becoming more of my story set against my brother in the backdrop of this indie rock band… I didn’t set out to make a documentary. I set out really just to have a job as a roadie and maybe provide video content for their website. So what actually happened was something I wasn’t prepared for.

“I really didn’t have time to sit back and say, ‘Okay, people are going to see you, crying, drunk on screen, people are going to being watching you, you’d better be prepared for this!’ I never had that conversation with myself. It’s great, I love the attention, but it’s also like, shit, people are watching me cry, which is strange.”

On becoming well-known after years of being the unemployed brother of an indie rock star:

“My life has totally changed in a way. It’s a good change. I always thought I’d be behind the camera, the next Peter Jackson, a horror movie director. I’m now in front of the camera all of a sudden; maybe my future career might turn in that direction… Presenting maybe, that’s what I’m thinking about doing, a little bit.”

Mistaken for Strangers (2013)

On the transition from film school graduate to professional director:

“I wouldn’t call it professional — you’ve seen the movie! A huge learning curve. I used to say to my friends who went to film school after me — when they asked if it was worth it — that yes, you meet good friends… School forces you to write papers, make movies. You have to be a one man show; you have to write and direct, you should probably learn how to act, and you should learn how to do everything really, really well.

“Making movies, it is so hard… you have so many little fires going”

“Making movies, it is so hard… you have so many little fires going. There are so many variables that could go wrong. You should try to learn as many variables as possible just to get a handle on it.”

On speaking up for the underdog:

“My friends gave me a lot of confidence to be open and honest with myself, because I have a lot of friends in their 20s and 30s that are are still trying to find themselves, in between jobs or out of work… I was embarrassed about my situation in life. Being 30 and not knowing what I wanted to do,. There are a lot of people out there like me.”

On realising that the documentary was actually about him:

“In the end, I eventually started realising that the movie would be so much more about me. My brother’s wife Carin [Besser] helped me — I’d be sitting on the computer and she’d be sitting right behind me, and we’d edit for a whole year: does this work, does this makes sense, and A or B ‘em. She saw the moment when I’m wasted on the bus… by myself on a band bus where I can just drink and party… doing weird video selflies… I was the only guy partying. When we looked at the footage we soon realised that it was criminally depressing, and that was even better. We realised what the movie should be about, and I was willing to go there. I’m more of a goofball than I reaslied.

“Carin is a secret weapon. She was a fiction editor for the New Yorker magazine for many, many years, so she has a really good editing eye. She can cut through the bullshit.”

“This is a sexy subject matter. I’m defintely riding on my brother’s, the National’s, coat-tails”

On asking The National for life advice:

“The band members were my psychologists; I felt you got more of an idea of who these guys are because they’re giving me life advice. To see your favourite band or celebrities giving good life advice — I think everybody should hear that! They’ve worked really hard to get where they are.

“I dont know their music very well, but what they are is successful musicians. [I thought] I gotta figure out how that happened.”

On using The National’s success to make a successful film:

“This is a sexy subject matter. I’m defintely riding on my brother’s, the National’s, coat-tails… I burned a lot of favours with The National. It’s elevated what I did.”

On the pressure of what to do next:

“There’s pressure to figure out what to do next. This is not pressure — doing interviews, talking about myself, that’s pretty easy. The pressure for me is the follow up. What’s the next step? [Mistaken For Strangers is] an exaggeration of me and our relationship; but people are going to remember that for the rest of my life. Now I have to fight against that and do something different.

“What happened with this movie is so special, and so unique that I can never recreate that magic. I can’t do that again with another band. I’m not related to anyone else! I can’t go to Slayer next…”

On his role models:

“Alexander Payne (Nebraska, Sideways, Election) — he’s my favourite comedy/drama director. Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall), Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi. The greatest director that ever lived is Steven Spielberg — that’s a bold statement! [laughs] You can’t deny his track record.”

On having a completely different taste in music to his brother Matt:

“We weren’t really a musical house. Our sister discovered ’80s alternative/pop and from there got my brother into early Pixies, e.t.c. She was only a year older than my brother. Nine years later I came into the world as a happy surprise. My very first album was a cassette tape of the musical the Little Shop of Horrors. I loved that movie.”

As told to Laura Robertson

Watch Mistaken For Strangers on Film4 this Friday, 1 August 2014, 11.05pm

Catch it at cinemas (full UK screenings list here) or buy it here 

Posted on 31/07/2014 by thedoublenegative