“How many drugs have you done?” Tom Berninger asks Bryan Devendorf, earning a quizzical look from the long-haired percussionist. At this point in Mistaken for Strangers, Berninger, whose brother Matt Berninger is the lead singer of the dark and penetrating Brooklyn-based indie band The National, has been on tour with the group for months, serving as a hybrid roadie and amateur documentarian.
The world tour has fallen short of Tom’s expectations of “rock ‘n roll,” with way more work and far less partying than he had anticipated. Though he’s responsible for backstage snacks, towels and dressing room organization, Berninger has spent most of his time with his small handheld camera, following the band members around and capturing them in awkward moments. In downtime, he’s kept the video rolling, grabbing plenty happy-go-lucky footage of himself traipsing around various European capitals, his off-kilter and blithesome disposition a contrast to the serious group’s serious musicians.
“I was kind of f—ing around with a camera. I was trying to get all types of stuff,” Berninger recalls. “I read all about them being dour, dark and depressing band, and I can see that. And I like dark and depressing music, but I like heavy metal and hard rock. But I always thought these guys were really nice guys, so I kind of wanted to make a more lighthearted comedy. So I just goofed around.”
That wasn’t quite appreciated by those in charge of the tour. Nothing from that trip went as anticipated, especially not the movie he was trying to create. Tom was fired eight months into the band’s excursion for not really doing his job; the footage he captured is damning evidence of that charge.
But it’s also the backbone of what would become the unexpectedly honest, intimate, touching and uproarious documentary Mistaken for Strangers, which opened the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday night in lower Manhattan.
Tom Berninger is nine years younger than his brother, and they could not be more different. Matt is a slim, focused rock star, with a harmonious baritone drone that has become recognized the world over; Tom is a pudgy metal head who still lives with his parents at 30-years old, an aspiring filmmaker with a few cheesy, ultra-micro-budget horror efforts to his credit.
“When he comes in, he’s hanging out in the room with that little tiny camera, I think we forgot most of the time,” Matt admits of his brother’s time on tour. “We just got really comfortable with it. He followed Bryan into the shower, and Bryan was like, ‘Hey, what are ya gonna do?’ And he interviewed him while he was in the shower. And everyone just thought it was funny, we just thought it might be some goofball thing that is on our website. We didn’t know that stuff was going to turn into what it did, and be a film festival’s opening night.”
The contrast between the brothers is best captured by a scene in which the band’s members get to talk with President Barack Obama after performing at a campaign rally; Tom gets left out, having not even been considered by the White House for the background vetting required for a meeting. Underneath the goofiness is a portrait of a man lost in the shadow of his successful, driven brother, and after he returns home, post-firing, Tom begins a difficult search for his identity. The self-captured video of his truth can provide the hard answers — if he’s willing to watch it.
“There was a moment in the movie that, a friend of mine had a little footage, and they just started putting something together and it was very touching and emotional,” Tom explains. “And that was the point that I realized that this was proving to be a lot more. For the longest time, I didn’t look at the really bad stuff. For the longest time, there was a scene where I got really drunk and I had a camera on myself, and I didn’t want to watch it. At the time, I thought it would be hilarious. But then it was actually very sad.”
He adds that, “Most of the things I thought would be really funny was actually depressing, sad and awkward. And the stuff I wasn’t really happy with became the great stuff.”
The latter portions of the film explore his struggle to actually string together 200 hours of footage into not just a cohesive story, but one that is compelling enough to watch and matter. Perhaps ironically, Tom moved in with Matt and his wife Corrine Besser, a former story editor for The New Yorker and a frequent contributor to The National’s songs. The camera continues to roll as he fights to piece it all together, becoming a meta-story about family, identity and the creative process.
Besser was instrumental in helping Tom shape the movie; she’s credited as a co-editor, and was the one that conceived of what it would finally become.
“When she saw the footage of him filming himself crying and filming himself getting fired,” Matt explains, “that’s when the light bulb went off and said to him, the movie is about you, not about the band.”
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin