News Column

The Oregonian, Portland, Ore., Jeff Baker column

October 15, 2013


Oct. 15--As a roadie, Tom Berninger was a mess. He partied too much, he forgot to take care of the pass list, he missed the bus and got left behind. He finally got fired in the middle of the tour after the ever-patient band members got sick of his goofing around.

As a documentary filmmaker, Berninger is a success. "Mistaken for Strangers," his movie about working (and not working) on the National's 2010 tour while trying to connect with his big brother Matt, the lead singer, is a funny, sweet, and unexpectedly moving look at what happens when one sibling makes it while another stays home.

"My failure to do anything good became the movie," Tom Berninger says, and he's not kidding. The "Spinal Tap" persona that Berninger presents is grounded in reality, he says. He really is a lover of heavy metal and horror movies who was 30 and living at his parents' house in Cincinnati when Matt, nine years older, asked him to join the National's world tour. Tom Berninger, a film school graduate ("I'm not a dropout, as has been reported"), brought along a movie camera because that's what he does and because you never know, right?

"The camera was just for fun, something to do on the side," Berninger says. "I thought I might shoot some web content, some interviews or videos for the website. The band is wrongly accused of not being funny, and I thought I could do some web content to help show that they're not like that."

Berninger's interviews are hilarious: he asks his brother how famous he thinks he is (Matt Berninger holds his fingers a couple of inches apart). He asks where the band will be "in, like, 50 years." He asks whether they take their wallets and ID onstage (yes). At one point, he tells guitarist Aaron Desser ""Can you look up? Look away. Look intense into the camera. Look away. OK now act like you just got a really good idea."

And he films himself, drinking, singing along to Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford's Christmas album, making mistakes, getting fired, moving back into his brother's house, and trying to make sense of what happened and make a movie out of it. He talks to his parents, his brother, the guys in the band, and starts to find a place for himself in the world.

"Making me the center of the movie was a gamble," Berninger says. "It didn't start that way, but it became about two brothers, about me and my brother, because that was the best stuff we had."

Matt Berninger's wife, Carin Besser, a producer on the movie, used some of the skills she learned as a fiction editor at The New Yorker to help shape "Mistaken for Strangers." She shot some of the scenes of Tom Berninger backstage and was his sounding board during editing.

"She encouraged me to be at the center of the movie," Berninger says. "Like the crying scene, there's a scene of me crying that I shot and I wasn't sure about and she said no, this is best stuff, you have to use this."

"Mistaken for Strangers" is making its way through the film festival circuit and will screen at 7 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Northwest Film Center. (Tom Berninger was scheduled to introduce the film but can't make it because of a conflict.) He says the reaction from "mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, coming up and telling me it makes them think about their relationships with their relatives ... it's unbelievable. It's a really great feeling."

He explains:

"I've always been close to my brother, but I was in grade school when he was in college, and early on, I was aware that he and my older sister were both really smart. My brother was pre-med, and then he dropped that to be an art director and he was great at that, and then he became this super-awesome rock star. It was one blow after another to my ego. I was OK with myself, I was OK with maybe never making a film, but a lot of young adults in their late 20s and early 30s have depression and have so much debt, and it's OK to feel lost and to be terrible at things. My brother would say 'find the things you're good at' but it doesn't always happen right away."

-- Jeff Baker


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