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‘Mistaken For Strangers’ director Tom Berninger talks metal, his brother’s band The National

Posted by on April 3, 2014

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It being that Metal Insider is a hard rock and metal blog, we haven’t written much about indie rock band The National, and with good reason. They’re perfectly fine, but “heavy” isn’t the first, or even 10th word that comes to mind when describing them. However, Mistaken For Strangers, a documentary that was released last week, was directed by a huge metal fan that happens to be singer Matt Berninger’s brother Tom. In between jobs, his older brother enlisted him to be an assistant road manager and documentarian on the road with them. It’s no spoiler to say the younger Berninger, a metal-loving partier, doesn’t mesh with the staid and somewhat pretentious band and the film ends up being a) really funny b) more about him than The National and c) surprisingly touching. He was happy to talk to us about metal, what his shortcomings were as a roadie, and the end result of his first documentary. Scroll down to the end of the interview to see what his five favorite current metal albums are. 

The film is available in theaters, On Demand and on iTunes now at www.mistakenforstrangersmovie.com.

 

So Mistaken for Strangers is out in theaters now. Did you ever envision it would come out theatrically?

No. I’m not an indie rock fan at all. I’ve always liked metal or hard rock, that’s what I listen to. I was in-between jobs; I lived in Cincinnati at the time and I was living with my parents even though it seemed like I was living with them for years. I was home trying to figure out where else I was going to go and my brother just called me up and said “why don’t you come on tour with me as a roadie – you can bring your camera along and have some fun, maybe shoot a tour diary.” All I really wanted to do was use my brother’s indie rock band to help my reel out a little bit, and maybe become a website videographer. That was the only reason why I was doing what I was doing at first.

 

 It’s hard to even describe the film to someone who hasn’t seen it. 

From the get-go I had no idea what the hell I was doing (laughs). I love my brother, I love all the guys in the band, but – not that I was wanting to get wasted every night, and not that I wanted to hang out with a bunch of teenagers either – I just wanted to have a little more fun. I just wanted to have a different time than what these guys were doing. I mean they certainly get drunk and have fun, but with touring musicians and the opening acts, I just wasn’t familiar with anybody or any of the music that was being played. Everybody was so great but I was definitely kind of a fish out of water. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing trying to make some sort of web diary. I just didn’t know what to do so I was filming whatever.  I was filming myself getting drunk; I was trying to entertain myself with the camera for the most part.

My brother’s band, The National, kind of gets a rap for being sad sacks or depressing, brooding indie rock musicians that are too cool for school, or critical darlings. But really they never set out to do that. Some people think that they get this wrap, but they are just a bunch of nice guys writing music that they like. And I wanted to, if anything, kind of strip them down and have fun with their image and show them as real people having fun and being nice; show that they’re not these ultra-hip, pretentious rock stars. You get a persona and you can’t really shake it, so they embraced it. But I kind of wanted to show them in a different light.

 

The film doesn’t necessarily do that, it makes you look like you’re having fun and they’re more of a serious operation – which they are I guess.

They are, that’s what I tried to set out to do. But I ended up really just shedding light on myself for the most part. When I was talking to the band members and asking them about my brother – instead of asking them about their music, I was asking them about relationships with their brothers, or the creative process. I was hoping it would at least give a sense of who they are as people, not by asking them about their music but their struggle, and what it means to get good reviews or bad reviews, and make something that no one ever listens to. That’s what happened for their first couple albums, they had a few fans and that was it. A lot of people think Alligator was their first album, but they had three albums before that. But they kept at it; they kept working hard. I just wanted to show people that these guys were good guys. They were telling me like anybody to just work at it and work hard, and with a little bit of luck your stuff might get out there.

Was it hard to film you more or less fucking up and losing your job?

Yeah, that was towards the end of tour anyways. I was more angry because I had to go back home with this footage that I shot and figure out something to do with it. So I was kind of nervous about that. I was also kind of relieved to be leaving the tour. At the time I was probably 30 years old and this was my big shot – I only wanted to be a movie-maker, I always thought I’d be a horror movie-maker, or a Peter Jackson or a Tony Scott or something like that. I never really thought I’d be doing something like this. And so I had turned 30 and quit my job at the TV station to do this; I was definitely feeling the pressure. I just spent a whole year of my life doing this footage and I had nothing to show for it. So I just kept the camera rolling and kept it on me. I knew deep down that this is something that a lot of young people my age are going through, like creative people that are in their late twenties to early thirties that have graduated college and they don’t know what they’re doing still. It’s scary when you don’t have a job, or you still live at home, or you have to move back home because you’ve lost your job. For some reason I felt that this was the more important stuff, that this was part of my movie. At that point in time I realized that I was going to be much more of a subject in my own movie. It was very strange to film myself crying, it was very hard to watch, it was very hard to edit and I needed a lot of help with that kind of stuff.

 

And your brother’s wife helped with the actual editing of it?

Yeah, she was a fiction editor at The New Yorker for many years and sat down one day to put her two cents in and saw some of the stuff that I was doing. She kind of sat there behind me in the editing chair for the entire time and I would just cut things together and we would talk about them, and she really convinced me to put a lot of that embarrassing stuff in there.

 

 What was your ratio of being a perfectly good roadie to being an incompetent one? It definitely shows more of the incompetent part.

We cut the movie for comedy but this is the truth: it’s definitely the relationship between me and my brother and how everything that happened, happened. We took things out of context to make it funnier, and to make it work. I definitely cut myself down to the funnier stuff and I was able to laugh at myself. The job’s not easy to be quite honest, and my brother was actually really proud of me to be filmed too, and so he would encourage me to film a lot. But also he was angry that I wouldn’t be doing my job. So really in the movie you just see the things that I messed up, but I did the job quite well and to be honest, when I got fired, it was a number of factors.

Number one, I was not doing the job that I was supposed to be doing. I wasn’t very good at it and (tour manager)Brandon needed somebody to be much more on the ball because they were then going into a month of really hardcore touring of festivals. Festivals are not something I really liked to shoot because it’s not really my brother’s show where I would be able to go to a National show at a venue and I could have the run of the place because every show is sold out. At festivals, every band is there and it’s not like I can run around and shoot other bands. So it was a number of factors, but we just cut to make it seem like – I was definitely fired and that was when I got fired – I kept saying “so you’re firing me” and they were like “yes, yes we are.” They preferred to say that I was being let go, but I kept saying ‘No you’re firing me.’” And so in the movie it kind of has a harsher feel to it, but it’s a comedy. Brandon the tour manager, who actually is a really nice guy, is tough. He’s all business, but we do get along really well and now we’re great friends. On tour we had some rough times, and I happened to leave those rough times in the movie.

 

You said you were in-between jobs and had worked at a TV station. What was your career path?  What were you doing before this?

I went to film school at Montana State University, where I made these pseudo-western horror action movies. I moved back to Cincinnati and worked at a few restaurants, and then I got a job at TV station pretty quickly. I worked there for about 4 or 5 years and I kind of had a moment where it was a great job and it was the first time in my life I had health insurance, I had dental, I had all this stuff that normal adults should have, but I kind of felt unfulfilled; like I was missing out on something. I wasn’t making movies. Some guys, having a girlfriend constantly is important to them, and for me it’s always great to have some fun, but that’s not priority number one. So I’ve always been kind of a loner, just a guy who likes movies, video games and metal. I felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do so I quit my job, and I wanted to experience this weird time in my brother’s life when he was finally making it in the indie rock world, and I just wanted to see what that’s like and enjoy the fun he was having. I was lost; throughout my twenties I was just totally lost.

 

 That’s kinda what your twenties are for. 

I guess, maybe I took it too seriously. I didn’t like my twenties. I went to an all-male Catholic high school in the west side of Cincinnati and it was kind of strict, but I had a great art teacher. He was also my journalism teacher; he was like a slice of bohemia and free-thinking in this pretty strict male Catholic high school. I loved my teenage years. I loved being 16 and feeling like a rebel. But when I was 20, I spent too much time comparing myself to others. As soon as I turned 29, when I was ready to go on tour with these guys, I stopped comparing myself to others; I made myself stop feeling shitty about myself. This is who I am, I like these movies; I like playing video games. I would like a girlfriend someday, but I’m not going to fucking stress out about it because it’s just bringing me down. As soon as that happened, it was a moment where I kind of freed up. Yeah, I had a really shitty time and I had a hard time making this movie; but the footage I got when I had fun and didn’t care about trying to be cool amongst these indie rock people and filmed what I wanted and made these guys do whatever I wanted to do, that’s the great stuff. And somehow it worked, and there’s a truth to all that.

 

Do you think this is leading you into a different world of filmmaking? Do you know what your next project is? Does it make you not want to do horror movies and do more documentaries?

I don’t know if I’m a documentary filmmaker. I just can’t make this movie ever again; it was a special circumstance. I think me being in front of the camera was a real revelation. It makes me feel a little weird because I’ve never had that personality. I’ve always been the kind of guy that’s like, ‘Oh you don’t need me up there I’ll be back here in the shadows.’ I think for too long I was like that. I might completely fail at this. This might be the only movie I’ll ever make, and I might completely fail at everything else, but I’m just going to go for it. I would love to make another horror movie; I would love to make a really great scary movie, but there are very few movies that scare me anymore. My one dream is so hard: I would love to make a heavy metal movie, but it’s hard for people to swallow metal in the theater environment. It’s even harder for people to score scenes for metal, but I have an idea in my mind. I don’t know what to say about it, but I have this script that I want to do that has a metal element to it. I don’t have any tattoos; I don’t necessarily look like it. I’m a pretty humble-looking guy; whenever I tell people I like metal they’re surprised. But I do, I’ve liked it since high school. I’ve had very few friends who also liked it, so I’ve had to seek it out on my own. And I’m one of these guys who listens to only like 4 albums a year. I don’t know how you guys do it – I know do you it professionally – but I can’t fall in love with more than 4 albums. I just like certain albums to be the music of my one year. There’s so much good music out there but I miss half of it.

 

Well, let’s talk about metal.

Yes! Please, please (laughs).

 

 What are some of your favorite bands?

Well I’m 34, but in high school – the grunge years when I was 12 or 13 – I had Nevermind by Nirvana; I had Pearl Jam. My brother was nine years older than me so he was out of the house. He was telling me that was the good stuff, and that is some of the great stuff. But I liked horror movies and I liked to draw, so I gravitated toward Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and AC/DC. My parents had the Internet, so I was able to just go on there and find artists similar to Iron Maiden. Obviously Judas Priest came up, so those are the bands that I discovered. I liked them because during the mid-90s, those bands were not very popular. For some reason I was kind of being ironic saying, ‘I want to like these bands because no one else does.’ And I ended up loving it and appreciating it. From Judas Priest, I immediately got into Slayer because Slayer covered “Dissident Aggressor,” and then Slayer just blew open the door. I can’t even tell you what was next. These days I like all types of stuff. This last Carcass album was probably my favorite album of the year.

 

It was awesome.

It was, yeah. And Heartwork, I probably got that album maybe five or six years ago and was like, “Oh this is really great.” So I heard this new album was great too, so I picked it up and it blew me away. Every song is unique and every song is totally catchy. I love that San Francisco band, Slough Feg. They have a new album called Digital Resistance. I always have a soft spot in my heart for these old school heavy metal acts and those guys have been doing it forever. So I really love the new album Digital Resistance. But you know, High On Fire; I love High On Fire. The new Deafheaven was really, really good.


How do you find out about metal? Is it still word of mouth, or the Internet?

Blogs, I just kind of use the Internet. You guys, I look at Brooklyn Vegan a little bit. Just the blogs, and I have one friend that also listens to that stuff and he tells me about new music. That’s mainly it. Actually, you know who I can really get into? ASG, I can really get into them. This is something that when I have a girlfriend, I can put these guys on and it’ll be okay (laughs).

 

How familiar were you with The National’s catalog and their music before going on tour?

I was fairly familiar, but I definitely don’t listen to them recreationally. Although I feel, considering they sometimes play more rock and screaming and darker stuff, that some guys who like heavier more screaming music might be into The National because they don’t necessarily play the light very vulnerable singer-songwriter type stuff – the stuff that I really can’t stand. To me, that stuff is just too whiny. That’s fine, but I do like the darker stuff; I think my brother’s band does sing about that. Sometimes he revels in the darkness and the stuff a lot of people don’t like to think about because it’s not fun. But so many people feel that way and so many people can relate.

 

Did you gain a newfound appreciation for them by touring with them for so long?

Certainly, I gained a new appreciation for their hard work. It didn’t come easy for them; they didn’t explode overnight. They worked hard and their fans are hardcore fans. They were never scene people, they worked really hard to get where they are. They were so close to giving up, but slowly they climbed and worked hard and nothing was ever easy for them. I have to appreciate that; they did it the old fashioned way as far as word of mouth. That’s what they did.

 

Would you ever tour with them again?

With The National? No.

 

Any band?

Maybe, I’m always afraid to meet my idols. I was able to meet Mike Scalzi from Slough Feg, he’s awesome. I’m always afraid to meet people that I like and listen to. I just don’t want to know that they’re jerks, and I don’t want to lose the mystique. And then when I go to see live shows, I don’t do it all the time because in my head the music I’m listening to – especially with metal – is so much more powerful and visual. When I see them live it’s definitely not what was in my head. So I go see a lot of shows when I can, but to me it’s enough to buy the album and think of the stories. I fear meeting my idols because I don’t want them to be jerks and I don’t want them to be lame.

 

Lastly, do you feel like this movie brought you and your brother close together? 

Certainly. We learned to work together; we learned to really appreciate each other’s strengths. My brother’s strengths are working really, really hard and not giving up even if it doesn’t look good at the moment; focusing on the good stuff. Who cares about the negativity, or certain reviews, or people telling you something’s not going to be good. Focus on the good stuff and you will make something good. And I think he learned my sense of humor. He found that I have a different way of looking at life; I like different music, and he’s starting to appreciate more metal heavier stuff.

 

TOM BERNINGER’S TOP FIVE CURRENT METAL ALBUMS

5) Skeletonwitch, Beyond the Permafrost

4) Dawnbringer, Into the Lair of Sun God

3) Carcass, Surgical Steel

2) Primordial, Redemption at the Puritans Hand

1) Slough Feg, Ape Uprising

 

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