By the time The National released their sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, last spring, the hard-working indie band had finally attained a level of fame and mainstream success that is often accompanied by documentary film crews and behind-the-music drama. But true to the band’s band-of-brothers kinship and conscientious sensibilities, the guy holding the camera for their close-up wasn’t some Hollywood auteur, and the backstage drama had to be imported. In Mistaken for Strangers, National frontman Matt Berninger invited his younger brother Tom to work the 2010 High Violet tour as a roadie. An aspiring filmmaker, Tom brought along his camera to make a few videos to post on the band’s website. Instead, Tom became the center of a meta documentary about two brothers: one, a rock god; the other, a laid-back dreamer just trying to finish what he started, for once.
Mistaken for Strangers opened last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and its rapturous reception made Tom Berninger, an unabashed slacker who prefers heavy metal to “pretentious [indie] bullsh-t,” as much a celebrity as his rock-star brother. “At the after-party, these famous people and other filmmakers were telling me how much they loved it,” says Tom, still awed by the experience nine months later. “I always wanted to be in the movie business but I never took myself very seriously until that moment.”
Tom was only 9 years old when his older brother left for college, and later, when Matt was on the road struggling in the early days of the band, Tom was enjoying college life himself. There was a built-in distance between them, a gap that Matt hoped to fill by inviting Tom on tour. “I think my brother wanted to get to know me a lot more than I wanted to get to know him,” says Tom. “He knew that he was in a very special position to take me along for a ride and maybe get me off my ass.”
In the documentary, the story becomes something truly special when Tom decides to turn the camera on himself as he struggles to fulfill his duties as a roadie, a job he was totally unqualified for in the first place. He screws up time and time again, testing his brother’s patience, until he’s finally fired by the tour manager. “Towards the end of the tour, people started to tell me the best stuff I had was of me because I looked like such a fish out of water and when Matt and I are together, we are such an odd couple,” Tom says. “That’s when I started realizing what my movie could be about.”
When the film arrives in theaters on March 28 (as well as VOD and iTunes), it will mark the end of a four-year odyssey for Tom, who spent a year and half editing the film and the last year promoting it at festivals. He admits that the film’s official release brings with it a “weird sadness” after investing so much effort into something so personally meaningful and rewarding. But he’s already considering his options for his next project. “I have been offered some small horror movies here or there, which I think are awesome, but I still have to figure out what I’m going to be doing,” he says. “A lot of people have talked to me about being in front of the camera more and that’s something that I’ve definitely been thinking about. There’s definitely things in the works.”
The National kicks off its new North American tour with a special March 25 concert in Los Angeles that will immediately follow the theatrical premiere of Mistaken for Strangers. The band has dates announced through May 9 in several U.S. states and Canada. Click here for more info.