When it was released, Mistaken for Strangers was met with very high praise from critical sources. Beyond that (and perhaps more importantly) there was also a distinct and measurable undercurrent of critics and audiences developing a very personal connection to the film. Predictably, some of that personal reaction came from fans of the massively popular band The National, whose tour is the subject of the film. Still others related heavily to the pressures of imbalanced sibling rivalry.
I connected with the film for an entirely different reason.
When I selected the out-of-nowhere rock documentary for my list of the best films of 2014, I did so because I was inspired by the film’s functioning as a meta-cinematic parable that had a lot to say about sticking with creative interests and artistic pursuits. Too often, our contemporary culture celebrates and focuses on early specialization; the expectation is that you know what you’re going to do and be at a very young age. We’re a society fixated on prodigious musicians, athletes, artists, scientists, etc. and this phenomena creates a stressful sense of expectation that haunts pretty much everyone transitioning from young adulthood to adulthood. The notion of making it to 25 without figuring out your life plan, or deciding in your mid-thirties to reverse and restart– these are nightmare ideas for many. This is why, when I watch Mistaken for Strangers, I see a movie about an unlikely hero who defies this trend in an inspirational manner.
So, I was delighted when Tom Berninger agreed to sit with me and talk about his film, the process of making it, and how it has (or hasn’t) changed his life.
David Shreve (Audiences Everywhere): First things first, how does Warner Herzog handle having to wait outside?
Tom Berninger (TB): Pretty well! It was probably a little more exaggerated in the movie, but he certainly was waiting outside for a little bit. Fortunately, the band hired another assistant tour manager, and [Herzog] was let in with some of the cast members of LOST. There was confusion at the door and they had to wait about ten minutes, and that’s what my brother freaked out about. I got to talk to him for about two sentences, but he seemed really sweet and really down to earth.
AE: At this point, by any measurement, you have to consider Mistaken for Strangers a success. You had incredible festival buzz last year, you’re over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, and critical blurbs make the most flattering comparisons you could ever ask for as the author of a rock documentary. With all that positive attention, is there any single reaction to your film that means the most to you?
TB: Wow, let’s think about that for a second… I think the comparison to Spinal Tap by Pitchfork is my favorite, for sure, but I also think that Joe Berlinger, who did Some Kind of Monster and the Paradise Lost movies. I’m a big metal fan and he loved my movie. So another rock documentarian talking about my movie and how it moves it forward in a weird direction, I thought that was great. But the Spinal Tap comparison is probably my favorite as well as very intuitive and… well, it’s also a great plug.
But I have to say, I never expected this much love for the movie. Ever. I was finishing the film with my brother and Carin Besser, Producer Craig Charland, Marshall Curry, and his editor Matt Hamachek. I was so heavily involved in front of the camera that I lost perspective a little bit. I knew that we had a funny, interesting story and I thought my story would touch a nerve on some people, but I never dreamed of the kind of love that it got. So it kinda blindsided me. Still to this day, I’m letting the dust settle and figuring out what I do next and where I land from there.
AE: Did you get a chance to watch with your family?
TB: Well, my whole family was at Tribeca when it premiered. I have to tell you though, I don’t like to watch it very much. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t watch it.
AE: Is that because there are some sharp and sincere moments you don’t want to revisit?
TB: Yeah. I shot myself on purpose. I put it in there. I wasn’t afraid to have it shown to people. But it just feels weird to be sitting amongst audience members watching myself spill my guts out and exposing the inner workings of my emotional state. I put it in there because it’s interesting, but it’s still all new to me. And it’s like… You know what, I feel used a little bit. I’ve been used by myself! I’d just rather not watch that part.
AE: Matt has seemed very supportive, to an endearing degree. But once all the accolades came in, did you ever allow yourself to gloat to him a little?
TB: Sure! Of Course! My main concern and worry with making this movie was that it was going to be stupid. But even more than that, I’d rather much rather it be stupid than boring, bad, and forgettable for the band. The band was so nice to me and such good guys. They let me have whatever access I wanted, because they like me. They like me because I’m not like my brother. In a rock band, you have good days and bad days, and I’m so different from my brother that it was refreshing to have me around a little bit. I learned this through my brother. And I just didn’t want to let them down. I didn’t give two shits about me or my career in film or anything. I just didn’t want to make a bad movie about The National.
AE: When you started, no one, including yourself, realized that you were making a feature length film. When that ambition developed, did their attitude about your filming presence change?
TB: Well, they were more concerned. Their involvement in wanting to see everything was definitely… Well I mean, I knew that was going to happen. Kind of. Yeah, of course. At that point, it’s more high profile. Whatever I did was going to be in the press; it was going to be in Pitchfork. “There’s going to be a National documentary coming out shot by Matt’s brother Tom.” It was going to make the rounds. They weren’t going to be able to bury it. And that scared me! That’s a scary thing.
AE: Was there anything they asked (or forced) you to leave on the cutting floor that you wish you could have kept?
TB: At that point, by the time they did see it, they saw it very late. That’s a strategy of mine. But.. Most of the stuff [that I left out] the fans wouldn’t want in there. I also didn’t find it very interesting. I filmed conversations of money, touring money. For another documentarian, that might have been interesting, but I wasn’t interested in that.
To be honest, the guys were willing and open to me shooting everything. Bryan, the drummer, is by far the one other band member that I’m closest to in a way. He didn’t want the whole drugs question in there. And he honestly, about two minutes later after that interview, was like, “You know that question from before? Just don’t put that in the movie.” And I’m like, “Okay. We’ll see.” And then I did.
In context, he saw what we were doing. It’s not like we were saying, “Doing drugs is cool.” He never said what drugs, if any. It was kind of a rock-doc moment in there. So far as what you’d consider a lot of bands doing or the questions you’d see asked. Every rock-doc has substance abuse issues. And that was my horrible attempt and getting in there a little bit. And it fell flat.
AE: So your film is obviously about your involvement in the tour of your brother’s band and being submerged in the music culture and now you have experience on the film festival culture. Can you describe the differences in the culture and which you feel most comfortable participating in?
TB: Movie world or music world?
TB: Movie world. I know nothing about the music world. Especially the indie rock music world. I love movies, obviously. And everyone says this, but it’s where I belong. I never thought I’d be doing a documentary and that’s put me in a strange position. Making a successful quote/unquote documentary. I like telling stories, and I like shooting, and I like doing things different and kind of weird. When I was filming and making this movie, I was in a good state of mind and I shot whatever I wanted to shoot. Given, it was hard to edit. The story was me making this ridiculous band documentary and it wasn’t your typical band documentary and it was kind of a mess. The one thing that I shot on tour that I somehow wanted to get in my movie was the band sleeping on the tour bus and I’m poking my head in looking at them sleep. I didn’t know how I was going to do that. I mentioned this a few days earlier. I told them “I might shoot you guys sleeping one night. I feel like on the tour bus you look like you’re in coffins. You all look dead.” And I love this idea that all the band members look dead and I killed them off. I don’t know how I fit this into the movie, but I did. Somehow we got it in. And that’s how I mainly made my movie. It took a long time to cut together, and I needed some help.
AE: That story reminded me of a scene where you’re trying to show Matt and Carin your editing process. You have what is seemingly a color coded post-it system, but you have trouble communicating it. So for a moment, it feels like you’re over your head. Of course, that’s meta-cinematic because we’re already in the movie and we know that you’ve accomplished it and the editing is already evidently one of the strongest elements of your film. After that exchange, was there a moment where your vision for the movie clicked or was it always as hard as it seemed in that moment?
TB: It was challenging. I’m not a hundred percent sure at that point that I knew what film I was making. Editing, of course, is something that happens late in the filmmaking process. I think I had it always swirling around in my mind that the lead singers younger brother making a movie or making anything about them — a short video, a short doc, or feature doc — I couldn’t pull myself out of it. I knew who I was. I was this guy who loved action movies and sci-fi. And I’m not a documentarian. And I like their music alright, but it’s not my particular cup of tea. I knew I couldn’t point a camera in their face and ask them about their music because I honestly didn’t care. What I did care about was fame. I knew these guys before they were famous and now I know them after they’re famous. Well, in small indie rock world famous. Well, they’re as big as they can get in indie rock world–
AE: They met the President.
TB: Yeah! They met a President. Twice! I was more interested in [fame] and I knew I couldn’t pull myself out of that. I’m a funny guy and I know that. I always bend everything toward comedy and weirdness. I think it’s the reason I haven’t been very successful in my life in many ways. That just hasn’t necessarily proven to be very successful for me. Except this one time.
It was important that I was honest with myself and that I shot what I wanted to shoot. What I didn’t know was that the movie would still be going on while I was editing. But I understood why I had to do it. I became much more of a subject. You know, when I’m breaking down crying, it was this weird moment of being a director, a subject, and also… just realizing that I was about ready to cry because I’m so freaking frustrated. So I said… “Let’s get a camera on me. And I’m going to start crying. What do I wanna say? What do I wanna say? Let’s make it short and sweet. If I don’t get it the first time, I’ll say it over until I get the best take of it.” That was this weird moment. And kind of how we made the movie in a nutshell.
AE: You’ve mentioned a few times that you’re not the biggest fan of The National and that you lean toward metal music. So if you could pick any tour in history to cover with another rock documentary, what would be your dream subject?
TB: Well, I think any metalhead of any caliber would go back to the old guys. Maiden, Judas Priest. I’ve always been a Judas Priest fan. I think maybe their look, Rob Halford being gay, and this lead singer doing this amazing thing coming out early on, well… in the mid-90s. I don’t want to do it because I don’t want to meet my idols, but they’re all doing this non-metal thing. They’ve lost their other main guitarist owns a big golf course. They’re getting older. I guess what I’d like to do is film Judas Priest’s tour that happened when they lost Rob Halford and they picked a guy from a Judas Priest cover band in Ohio to replace him as lead singer. They were the first band to ever do that. That movie Rock Star with Mark Wahlberg was based off of Judas Priest’s story. So that would have been cool–
AE: You’re saying the right person finds this interview and wants to fund you, you wouldn’t want to do this documentary because of the idol relationship?
TB: Yeah. Totally. I would much rather keep my metal gods… Well, if I had a chance to meet Rob Halford or Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden. I’d never turn them down if they were in the room. But as far as getting in and getting involved in their lives, I don’t think so.
AE: So what would be more challenging: A film about your idols or this film about your brother?
TB: A film about my idols would be more challenging. I’m already in the midst of chaos with my brother constantly. I just flick the camera on and there’s good stuff. My idols, I go to for comfort. The last thing I want to do is open that up and ruin what I have with them… just flip on a good Judas Priest album, smoke some weed, drink some beer, and relax. The last thing I want to do is have a backstory about those guys being assholes.
AE: You don’t want to do that knowing how many times Halford goes to the bathroom in an hour.
AE: Do you have any ambitions to make any other documentary? Want to cross over to superhero films? What’s next for Tom Berninger the filmmaker?
TB: Well, I don’t think I’m a documentary filmmaker at heart. Whenever I see something that interests me, I think about writing a script about that and filming it. So, what’s next… our little team of me, my brother, and Carin are here in L.A. and we’re trying to develop a T.V. show based off of my life and my brother’s life. I live in their guest house behind their house. Once the movie was what it was, my brother wanted to continue this and make it a T.V. show. So right now we’re trying to do that. It’s tough, but we’re getting there. We’re in the midst of it.
Making the film made me realize I had screen presence. I’ve always wanted to be a director. I went to film school at Montana State University and I did these crazy Barbarian movies and weird Westerns. I never dreamed of being the person in front of the camera. Basically, I was like “Why would anyone want to watch me?” But making this film, I started realizing and seeing myself on camera and I started remembering my years of being a struggling filmmaker, people would tell me I should be in front of the camera, I should act, or I should be a stand up comedian. So now, I’m taking that seriously. I’m starting to learn the techniques and figure out who I am and so I got myself into a small production of King Lear with a small Santa Monica theater troupe. I play very small roles. I went in asking to be a nameless soldier without any lines and the director gave me five roles. I’m doing something very hard and awkward for me to learn who I am, and to learn who I am as an actor.
AE: That’s interesting because my favorite thing about your movie is that conveyed message that sometimes it’s okay to discover who you are later in your life than some might expect you to. That message, that figuring things out at this stage in life is not only possible, but it might result in something this moving, beloved, and beautiful.
TB: That’s a huge subject in the movie. The reason why I wanted to make this movie as it is: I have so many friends who are in their early 30s who aren’t making as much money as their parents did. What our parents went through, with the whole Reagan thing, they made a lot more money because the political environment was different. And that’s okay. I couldn’t have made the movie without struggling. I’m still struggling. I’m a guy constantly in discovery of himself. And I wanted to make this for my friends struggling to figure out their way in life. It’s scary out there and we’re all in uncertain times.
I’m still going through that right now. I’m 35 and I’ve made the biggest thing I’ve ever made. I’m still ahead of so many people in L.A. as far as a product and having a calling card, or a business card. But I still work in a restaurant in L.A. But I haven’t sought out management or an agent. A lot of people think I’m a documentarian. And the movie is the truth. It’s just done by a director/actor/writer. It’s always a truthful story about me and life. I have so many awesome doors opened for me now, but it takes a very long time. And I’m getting to a point where I’ve kind of started over. I’ve started over all my life. At 25, I was working at a local ABC news station in Cincinnati. I had a 401k and health insurance and all that stuff. That was the best job I’ve ever had. That was stability. I could buy a house and live comfortably in Cincinnati, Ohio. But it also gave me the courage to move to New York, where I P.A.’d for a long time on movies. That wasn’t represented in the film. I was always kind of lost because what I wanted to do was create. I was lucky to have the luxury to do that because the band paid my bills for most of it. Now my movie came out and it exploded as far as a small doc would go; we still haven’t made our money back on the thing but it got us into the room with a lot of very interesting people working with us. But it hasn’t given me money. Not that money is the thing, but I still don’t have a car in L.A. and I’m working in a restaurant.
Now I feel a little cornered by my own movie. I’m the subject in my own movie, which is very truthful, and I exposed myself, but it was also something of a performance. It’s been weird and hard and exciting and I’m very, very lucky. Because I do have a small foot in the door that a lot of people would dream of having. I just get nervous when I think of that because I don’t know how to use that power. Everyone says to have five things lined up and ready to go, but this movie came out of the blue for me. I worked very hard on it, but success came out of nowhere. And I had nothing else lined up and I’m trying to figure that out.
AE: Would you say you’re happier with your current struggle, doing what you want to do, or were you happier with your 401k retirement plan and stability?
TB: I’m less comfortable now. But I’m very lucky. I worked really hard, putting my heart and soul into this thing and it paid off. And I’m more uncertain now than I’ve ever been in my life. I guess if I really applied myself I could find backing and funding, maybe. Maybe. But I’m trying to figure that out. I’m trying to do my own thing, and it’s scary. It was much easier with the 401k. But less fulfilling. I’m not depressed as much any more by where am I going in my life. I’m depressed by the pressure of having the next thing I do have to be really good. But that’s a great pressure to have.
AE: So do you have any advice for any reader who might be dealing with ambition shrouded by uncertainty?
TB: I did something that I felt was the best I could do and I worked really hard on it. We always say: Anything you do, any project you start on is always going to be bad for a very long time. There will be no shape, no form. Months will go by and it will still be bad. Keep working on it. You’ve got to keep working on it. There’s going to be a point where you keep filming stuff that you think might work, you keep writing stuff, and it’ll come to a point where it’s kind of okay. It’ll get to kind of what you originally wanted, but you’ve got to be flexible when it wants to go in this direction. And you keep working on it while it’s okay. Then it keeps being okay and you keep working on it. And then you’ll see that it’s good. And you keep that going until it’s great. It’s okay to take a very long time.
And the last thing you want to do is ever compare yourself or your life to anyone else. That will destroy anybody, any ambition. Don’t compare yourself to what this person did or what age they did it in. You have to realize that everybody’s path in life is different. And it’s always bad until it’s good, and once it’s good, work to make it great and see where you end up.
Mistaken for Strangers will be screening at the 18th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in downtown Durham, North Carolina on Saturday, April 11. Tickets are available online.
All images courtesy Mistaken for Strangers, Starz Media.