In filmmaking, there’s always pressure, especially around one’s first feature. Ideally, you arc your career so that you can grow as a director with each film, raising your profile as you raise your game so that when you’re ready for your big break, you’ve put in the time and have the resume and scars to prove it.
And then there’s the unorthodox and gutsy route that Tom Berninger took.
Berninger is an aspiring Brooklyn, N.Y., filmmaker originally from Cincinnati’s West Side. Heretofore, he’s done some crew work and directed some experimental horror/action shorts. His older brother Matt, as it turns out, is really successful at his chosen profession. He fronts one of Cincinnati’s bigger musical exports, The National.
So Tom decided — albeit passively, almost by accident — to make his first feature about the band, a documentary about music, brotherhood and finding your place in the world. At Matt’s urging, Tom joined the band as a roadie on its 2010 tour supporting its fifth album, High Violet. As any young filmmaker would, he brought along his camera and filmed those private moments with the band and the family that surround it.
“I never really intended the movie to be a movie,” Tom says. “I thought it would be a DVD extra or something extra to have on their next album special edition. It becoming a movie and becoming something more about me and my brother makes me even more nervous. It’s very honest.”
After the tour and some particularly rough moments on the road, Tom moved in with Matt and his wife Carin Besser, who also serves as a producer on the film, to start the process of editing and finding the story.
He started with 200 hours of footage and no obvious through-line. Then, at the urging of Matt and Carin, Tom realized he was as central to the story as the band.
“My movie turned into something that only I could do: my brother is a Rock star and I am not,” Tom says. “So it’s about two brothers becoming reacquainted now that we’re adults. I’m seeing my brother rise to a level of popularity and stardom and I see his passion for his band really taking that off. It’s incredible but it’s a lot to process for a younger brother.”
The result is Mistaken For Strangers, a 75-minute documentary and Tom’s first feature.
Older brother Matt’s reaction: “It’s the most moving and beautiful thing I’ve ever been a part of. But I don’t ever want to do it again.”
Their personal journey is about to be seen by more people than they might have first thought. Mistaken For Strangers was selected not only to appear in but also to have its world premiere as the opening night feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, kicking off Wednesday in New York.
“It was a huge shock to me,” Tom says of the news. “I have no frame of reference for what that really meant. But I know it’s an incredible honor.”
It didn’t always look like the project was headed for such green pastures. In fact, Tom’s time on the tour was cut short. While he enjoyed filming his brother and the band during their off-stage time, he wasn’t the best roadie. That made the family bonding at times a little strained.
“Having him around was a blessing and a curse,” Matt says now. “I left for college when Tom was 9 years old and since then we had really only spent time together around holidays and family events. So I was really happy to spend quality time with him on the road but it wasn’t always easy. We had grown into very different adults and were both under a lot of pressure on tour, very different kinds of pressure. This sometimes led to conflict, which is represented in the film.”
For his part, Tom says he hoped to shed a different light on the band than their reputation allowed. They’re too often called dark and depressing, he says, because of their soulful, introspective music.
“I just see them as nice, fun guys,” Tom says. “So I wanted to show that in the film, too.”
Matt counters, “As you’ll see in the movie, we’re not always nice.”
The National is scheduled to play after the film premiere at Tribeca. Later this summer, the band is booked to headline the Sunday, July 14 line-up at the Bunbury Music Festival back in Cincinnati. Is there a chance the film will come, too?
Tom says he couldn’t go into details but some plans are afoot.
“They’re going to make every effort to make sure fans everywhere see the movie,” he says.
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