Gold from Straw: Brotherhood, Perseverance, and Creative Editing in Mistaken for Strangers

Tom Berninger turns a would-be straightforward rockumentary about his brother’s band into an extraordinarily rich, moving tale of fame, fortune and family.

Director Tom Berninger had no initial conception of where his documentary on the National, Mistaken for Strangers, was going to go, beyond being a simple rock-doc. Albeit one where the band isn’t a drama-driven, rock ‘n’ roll, radio-friendly hit-machine, but careful crafters of gloriously mournful, doom-laced ballads. Also, one where the filmmaker’s older brother is the lead singer.

“There was very little preparation to start out,” Berninger said. “I went in trying to be a fly on the wall, recording conversations, like a real band documentary. The band is criticized for being dark and depressed, a moody band, which I think is wrong—so I wanted to make something funny, like a Monkees documentary. I wanted to play against all their songs and their cool, buttoned-up image.”

Hearing about Berninger’s unpreparedness is surprising in light of what Mistaken for Strangers eventually became—a deliciously complex, genre-bending instant classic that, like all the best documentaries, grasps at an unusual level of truth. Watching it feels like some kind of ontological exercise, a game of definitions. Is it: a) a rock-doc; b) a portrait of the complicated nature of success; c) an examination of the universal condition of siblinghood; d) a film about the making of a film; or e) an exercise in self-validation? The answer, of course, is all of the above, and it’s a tribute to the art of editing that Berninger managed to infuse so much into his film’s meager 75 minutes.

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The rock-doc part is pretty self-explanatory—although even on that most basic level, there’s a twist. Struggling would-be filmmaker Tom, invited by big brother Matt to be a roadie on the National’s latest tour, takes upon himself to film not so much the concerts as all the behind-the-scenes stuff: crew members scurrying around clutching to-do lists, so intently focused and professional that the camera-wielding, question-posing Tom inevitably gets in their way (to cringe-worthy hilarity). Afterwards, deposited for a while in Matt’s New York home, Tom settles into editing his footage with the help of Matt’s wife, Carin Besser, and the better part of his brother’s patience.

The National is, famously, a literal band of brothers—besides Matt Berninger, two pairs of brothers (Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Scott and Bryan Devendorf) make up the rest of the act. How fitting, then, that Mistaken for Strangers is a portrait of siblinghood that ranks amongst the most authentic of its kind, like Rachel Getting Married and You Can Count on Me. Any older sibling will recognize the exasperated affection Matt slips into when dealing with Tom: the irritated concern that only comes from knowing someone for their entire lives; the vestiges of egoism from years with all the attention to yourself.

At the same time, you don’t need to be a younger sibling to appreciate how much it might, on paper, suck to be Tom Berninger, saddled with a smart, popular brother nine years his senior who then upped and became a rock star. Who can blame Tom if Matt’s shadow looms large over his own life, part motivating obsession, part Achilles Heel? One telling moment early in the film cements the gap between the two: About to embark on their first concert stop in Paris, Matt says to Tom, “I had no idea you had never been to Europe.” As Tom wrote in his filmmaker’s statement: “I brought a camera on tour as a way to understand Matt a little better, and maybe also as a way to put myself into the picture.”

It’s not every filmmaker who would think to keep that line in, or who would be willing to make a doc about the spiny, difficult nature of brotherly love and rivalry. The genius of Mistaken for Strangers lies largely in its unusually detached, honest look at its maker, so much so that on yet another level, the film is a story about editing. Cue the long stretches of comic despair that Tom sinks into under the weight of all the footage he’s collected, and the torment he undergoes trying to piece his film together—the film’s more ‘meta’ sequences, sure to resonate with moviemakers who have been stuck in a similar post-production mire.

Berninger spoke about the slow, meandering road to final cut. “The editing process was incredibly long. I cut the movie with Carin [herself a former New Yorker editor] for a year and a half, sifting through footage and trying to find a story. For a while we were trying to just make a straight-up National documentary. Then slowly we realized that the best stuff was all about myself and my brother, together.” Including this footage of himself wasn’t initially in the cards, but Besser compelled Berninger in that direction. “Carin was very instrumental in pushing me to put myself into the movie.” (Matt Berninger describes his wife as the “genius behind the curtain.”)

As any filmmaker who appeared in front of their own camera has found, it was a major challenge for Berninger to view himself as a character he could mold in the edit. “It was difficult to see myself as a comic figure. Slowly, I started losing my eye as the movie became more and more about me. For a while it worked, but I certainly broke down. I was bludgeoned for a while by the amount of my face onscreen.”

Though he “learned that I might have some screen presence—it’s a nice feeling that people don’t walk out of the movie once they see my face,” the necessary distance came eventually in the form of third-party assistance. Berninger and Besser invited other editors to work on the film for its final year of post, including Matthew Hamachek, frequent collaborator of Mistaken for Stranger‘s executive producer Marshall Curry.

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It’s fascinating to watch Berninger chisel the framework of his film out of its raw material, complete with a wall of color-coded post-its and a disastrous test screening—an ever-welcome reminder that all good art requires a process of trial and error. As Matt Berninger said, “It was a perfect movie for the National. It’s like one of our songs—warts and all, with the small details in between all of the other stuff that defines people as characters.” (After all, it’s this very commitment to illustrating the inane, inadequate, quiet desperation of the average modern American life—hardly the sexiest subject matter—that, perhaps, has put the National into their still-not-quite-mainstream position in the musical landscape, despite the unprecedented success of 2010 album High Violet.)

All this makes Mistaken for Strangers a textured and intelligent treatise on the nature of success—in music, filmmaking or any pursuit. There’s a poignant scene in which Matt talks about the band’s less-than-stellar early years: the thin crowds (“It was so humiliating”), the times they thought about giving up. For all their late success, the National is well-versed in a battered humility that remembers the uphill journey to such peaks, and the things they had to leave behind along the way.

The film, its title taken from a National song (“they wouldn’t wanna watch/Another un-innocent, elegant fall/Into the un-magnificent lives of adults,” goes the chorus), has the element of an elegy for the slacker generation. Tom Berninger credits this layer to Producer Craig Charland: “As a person my age, he saw the story of a young guy like me soul-searching in life. He gave me encouragement by saying, ‘A lot of people are in the same boat—a lot of people in their 20s and 30s are struggling to find themselves, within the economy.’” Berninger himself had hit his 30s and had recently moved back with his parents. “I had a feeling,” he said now, “that this was my one shot at making something important—my only shot at doing something that people might watch. There was a now-or-never feeling; ‘Let’s go for it and throw every single thing I have into it.’ And it worked.”

In the end, though, the film’s central narrative isn’t so much about belonging to a certain generation, or to identities constructed around the order you were born; it’s about growing through that. It suggests that the nine years between Tom and Matt will teach Tom as much as his brother knows about faith in himself, and about the importance of opening up to support. A climactic scene in the film takes place mid-concert: during the song “Terrible Love”, Matt Berninger hops offstage and wades through the crowd like an evangelical preacher, delivering his lines in an urgent, hoarse yell. The entire crew scrambles through the auditorium to accommodate the frontman’s wandering (he even makes it out the back door before returning to the stage), but it’s Tom who’s up there alongside Matt the whole time, holding his mic cord out for him like a lifeline as he sings the repeated refrain, “It takes an ocean not to break.”

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“Our band went through the same process,” Matt Berninger said. “We’re better now that we were when we started. It’s been a slow process of finding our creative footing. I knew that at points Tom was struggling [with the film], but I kept telling him, ‘Don’t give up on it. It won’t work until it does. It’s going to take a while; you have to have patience with the creative process and patience with yourself.’ The worst thing to do is, because something’s going badly, to give up.

“Our band didn’t give up, for the first few years where things were going bad—we could have, and at points we probably should have—but it slowly got better, bit by bit. That’s what I told Tom when he was in the middle of the chaos, ready to throw in the towel. The whole band is so happy that he stuck with it, and now we have this thing that we’re all so proud of.” MM

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