Dressed only in a white bathrobe, Matt Berninger takes a step toward the streaked bathroom mirror and sighs, "Well, The National belongs to everybody now." "Nope. No," says the cameraman, who's also Matt's younger brother Tom. "Look at me." Tom pans over to his own reflection and, after two false starts, repeats the line in an action-hero monotone. Both of them crack up.
This scene comes near the end of Mistaken for Strangers, Tom Berninger's documentary about Matt's burgeoning superstardom as the frontman of The National, Tom's disastrous stint as a member of their crew, and the tangled web of brotherly love -- an apt theme for a band that already contains two sets of brothers (guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner, and bassist Scott and drummer Bryan Devendorf). With the film opening in New York next week, having kicked off the Tribeca Film Festival last April, we met with the Berninger bros and basically sat back while they ribbed each other and talked about the film's evolution from throwaway web content to one of the most weirdly intimate rock-docs ever made.
Let's start with you, Matt.
Matt: OK. He's an idiot. Sorry!
Tom's shooting style is pretty confrontational: he pushes your buttons, he pisses off the crew, he films your drummer showering. Was it ever in the back of your mind that he needed to provoke people in order to make a good movie?
Matt [to Tom]: You probably have me yelling at you to turn the camera off hundreds of times. Picking where to use one of those things in the movie -- when the movie started turning into this whole thing about our relationship and then Tom's struggle to find his own voice and do his own thing, that's when, like, "Oh, let's use some of that conflict." A lot of the stuff -- when Tom had his camera on, including Bryan in the shower and Scott in a garage moving chairs around -- all the stuff that most documentaries would probably leave on the floor is what Tom and my wife [Carin Besser], who helped edit it, wove together into something interesting. This is a better movie than a profile of the band ever would have been.
Tom, at one point you tell Bryan that the rest of the band is "coffeehouse" and that he's relatively "metal." Did Matt get any more metal as you made this movie?
Tom: I think The National is one of the most metal indie-rock bands out there as far as live performances go. I'm being kind of honest. I think Matt has gotten more metal.
Matt: Maybe you've gotten more coffeehouse.
Tom: Maybe I've gotten more coffeehouse. I honestly think The National -- if you see them live, [Matt] goes crazy. Actually, I don't know of another metal band where the lead singer goes into the drop ceiling, his head in the wires. You do more crazy stuff onstage than any metal band does. I always say, they get this bad rap for being sad sacks that are depressing. I want them to do a really depressing album so all those people that give them shit will then kill themselves and they won't have to deal with them anymore.
Matt: You realize that we've done well by people...
Tom: I'm saying the people that don't like you for being depressing, just give them the most depressing thing they've ever heard so you'll wipe 'em out.
Matt: We're OK. We're more OK with being labeled as dark and sad sacks than you are. You hate that.
Tom: Well, 'cause the music is also fun! Metal can be fun. I mean metal is dark and crazy...
Matt: Yeah. I think people who listen to us know that too. Tom hates the haters, and we've had so many haters for so long we've learned the haters are part of the thing. [To Tom] You realize you're going to get a lot of haters too.
Tom: Oh I know. I get a lot of like, "I don't listen...," like, "I'm not really into your..." And you know what? I hate people that have to say that. I've had that lately. People who see the movie are like, "I don't like really your brother's band at all..."
Matt: But they like your movie.
Tom: They like my movie.
Tom, you're onscreen most of the time, so obviously you weren't the only guy shooting. Who else was on board?
Tom: Friends and family.
Matt: And later my wife was shooting stuff.
Tom: I was doing tour diary stuff. We never knew what we were gonna make. But also it was a lot of clever editing.
Matt: You wanted, sort of from the beginning, to put yourself in the movie.
Tom: Well, I wanted to use The National's popularity to catapult me somewhere.
Matt: You wanted the world to know that I had a brother.
Matt: You were trying to do a little bit of a Michael Moore thing. Like, "Here I am, here's the real thing." It was funny that Michael Moore ended up liking the movie.
Tom: He was great. He was the first guy to ever give me an award. My first filmmaking award.
Matt: Have you gotten an award since that?
Tom: I've gotten an award from a few places, yeah.
Matt: You have?
Matt: Good job.
Mistaken for Strangers trailer
Tom, why are you so nervous in the last scene? You're in your room editing, and as soon as you notice the camera you cover the screen with your arm.
Matt: I shot that!
Tom: There was a heavy metal montage that's still gonna be in the bonus materials.
Matt: He was trying to smash coconuts.
Tom: I was on a beach and I was trying to crack coconuts. This anger, this angry moment...
Matt: Crackin' skulls.
Tom: There was an interview I did with my brother that I just cut out all the words that he was saying and made him say, like, "I like to shit in the park" or whatever. Kind of like manipulate what my brother was saying to make him look stupid. Didn't make it into the movie.
Matt: At one point you were trying to make like a Monkees-esque documentary. Most of the time you just thought you were making web footage or something, bonus material for our website. In many ways my wife was -- would you say she was the one who helped steer it towards something that could actually be an interesting movie that people would want to watch? We didn't have any interest in there being a band profile movie necessarily. But making the movie much more about Tom -- she was the first person who kind of set the compass to that direction.
Tom: I mean, in some ways my footage was so -- not terrible, but so subjective with my presence always there. I was free-falling. I didn't know what I was doing.
Matt: You were the only narrative. For us, you know how it is, it's a lot of guys on laptops backstage, and that's what it was for a long time. But you getting fired and going through your personal struggles -- there's a story there. The rest is just a collage, like a Meeting People is Easy type of thing. Which is a beautiful movie, but you weren't making a beautiful movie.
Tom: I knew there was stuff of me getting wasted on the bus, listening to heavy metal. I knew for some reason that was kind of good. I don't know why.
In the moment, even while you were shooting yourself crying?
Tom: Like when I was talking about Rob Halford's Christmas song and stuff, I was pretty wasted.
Matt: The crying thing is another example, though: you were like, "I should shoot this."
Tom: That is a perfect example of the weird, surreal nature of the way this movie was put together. I was having a panic attack and really getting worried about what kind of movie this was going to be, and I felt like I was going to cry. I was in a really, really dark place. And I just felt like, I should film this. I should get my camera out, put it on a tripod and shoot what I'm feeling right now. And that's just a weird thing, where you actually roll and then you've got to sit back and just start talking about your feelings.
Matt: I haven't watched the whole thing, but it's like 30 minutes.
Tom: And we used 15 seconds of it.
Matt: Maybe that's bonus material: you crying for 30 minutes.
Mistaken for Strangers opens March 28 at IFC Center.