Tribeca: How a Fired Roadie for The National Landed the Opening Slot

Tom Berninger
Tom Berninger
 Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"You'll have to excuse me, I'm a little nervous," says Tom Berninger, the director of the documentary Mistaken for Strangers, the Tribeca Film Festival's surprise choice to serve as its opening-night film. "This is pretty much my first interview."

That's because Berninger, the younger brother of Matt Berninger, the singer-songwriter who fronts the Brooklyn-based indie-rock band The National, has not only never made a documentary before, he's never completed a feature of any sort. In fact, the Montana State film school dropout's last job was as roadie for his brother's band as it toured in 2011 -- and he was fired in the middle of the tour.

Fortunately for his future employment prospects, though, Tom, 33, brought a camera on the tour and, goofing around, began shooting footage backstage before he was sent packing. "He shot himself on the tour -- getting yelled at, arguing with me, getting depressed and then crying when he got fired," recalls Matt, 42.

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For those just tuning in, The National, which formed in 1999 in Cincinnati, is beginning to shed its ever-so-slightly underground status to enjoy wider popularity.

High Violet, its fifth and biggest album, has sold 660,000 copies since its release in 2010, and the group since has played Coachella and the Hollywood Bowl. Its next album, Trouble Will Find Me, will be released in May.

However, the film that grew out of that backstage footage is far from a standard-issue rock documentary. Mistaken for Strangers -- its title comes from the band's song about fights among family members -- features very little performance footage. Instead, it's all about brotherly love, drama, conflict and eventual redemption. In many ways, it is the cinematic equivalent of a National tune: deep, perplexing, poetic and obtuse while also light and funny.

One of Tom's big issues in the film is the fact that he can never finish anything -- even his mother accuses him of that. "It was a strange movie to make," admits the newly minted director. "It's very confessional and exposing -- but we wanted to make a real movie, something much more compelling, something Matt and I would both love to watch. We're not huge rock-doc fans. I will sit there proudly at the Tribeca premiere, but it's still too hard for me to watch the scene of me crying -- this movie is not the way I thought I'd be making a name for myself."

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Finishing the film, which cost less than $200,000, took two years. Tom moved into the Brooklyn home of Matt and Matt's wife, Carin Besser, a former story editor at The New Yorker. There, he flailed around with hundreds of hours of footage until Besser, who took on the role of producer, and a team of film pros stepped in to help.

"Carin helped put the story together with Tom," recalls Matt. "We sent it to Sundance and didn't get in. We were super-bummed -- but that was a blessing in disguise." Portlandia's Fred Armisen, who shares a tour manager with The National, saw that version and said, "You need an editor." And so Besser called in two-time Oscar-nominated documentary producer Marshall Curry and another young producer, Craig Charland, who helped fine-tune the material.

The result, says Tribeca director of programming Genna Terranova, "is really honest, funny, relatable -- about the same family issues we all have. Tom's pre-existing relationship with his brother comes into play, and you watch him, a guy in his 30s, suddenly grow up and begin to appreciate his family instead of resenting them. We were really moved by the film."

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As for Tom, he was relieved once the film was recut and accepted by Tribeca -- even though he still can't quite believe it has been chosen to play opening night.

"This movie," he says, "is a small, fragile thing. It's sort of my brother's gift to me -- but the one thing I can't believe is that I actually finished something."

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