Words: Brody Rossiter
He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother
After years of toiling away beneath the shaky lighting rigs of empty beer-soaked bars, peddling his musical wares alongside his melodic band of brothers, The National, Matt Berninger’s sucker-punch lyricism would propel the Ohio native from the rag-tag romanticism of New York City’s inconsequential avenues to the upper echelons of indie-rock immortality. A notable omission upon this journey, which has included sell-out world tours, widespread critical acclaim, and joining President Obama on the campaign trail, would be Matt’s younger biological brother Tom. Still living at home in Cincinnati with his and Matt’s parents, the younger Berninger would watch his sibling sweet-talk his way into the hearts and record-collections of America while he was fixing a drink in the basement of their childhood home.
After an impromptu invite landed the self-appointed L’enfant terrible a spot as a roadie on The National’s 2010 High Violet tour, Matt’s fondness for filmmaking and troublemaking was rekindled and documented through the lens of his video camera. This bittersweet collage of footage would result in Mistaken for Strangers, a startlingly candid, irreverently funny, and deeply redemptive tale of two brothers reconnecting in the midst of an indie-rock haze of stardom and self-loathing. HeyUGuys talks shower scenes, guitar lessons, and exorcising demon’s with the Berninger brothers.
Tom, what was behind the decision to focus the documentary upon yourself and Matt’s relationship, as opposed to The National or the tour as a whole? And at what point did you make that decision?
Tom: It was never totally a conscious decision. It was in the editing room when my brother’s wife, who is also a co-editor and co-producer on the movie and was a fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine, sat behind me for a whole year while I was editing the first cut of the movie and realised I was going through some serious emotional and stressful issues in my life. We just knew the movie wasn’t finished. She saw that in a lot of the footage I was really opening myself up and looking very ugly at the same time. She originally watched me getting drunk on the bus and got very excited about it, and not because it was cool, but because it was really depressing. It was that scene and also my long crying scene, it’s about fifteen seconds long in the movie but the version she sat through was about half-an-hour. She really convinced me that this is the way that the movie should go… about my struggles somewhat in the shadow of my brother.
There were a few moments on tour when I thought “what if the movie was specifically about me being a ‘partier’ and having fun while screwing with The National’s indie-rock image?” I think the scene when the guys are sleeping on the bus, which was towards the end of the tour, I felt like only I could have ever got that footage, especially the only person that could have got that footage without being arrested for invasion of privacy or something. I didn’t know how I was going to use it but I just wanted to. It looked like they were dead, they are in these weird coffin looking things and I just really liked it. I think that night, when I had filmed them sleeping, I knew that maybe this movie could be something different, something odd and offbeat.
I actually had a question about that because it was one of the scenes that really struck me, did you always have the intention to do that Tom or was it something that just came to you spontaneously in the moment? And Matt when you saw that footage how did you feel about it?
Matt: Specifically the stuff of us sleeping you mean?
Yeah, in the bunks on the tour bus.
Matt: It was… it was erm… creepy [laughs]. I mean Tom was there, he was in the bus with us, the hotel rooms, he was in the bathrooms with us. Tom was always around and he always had the camera on, and so we didn’t think too much about it. Everyone was really comfortable with him being around and quickly became comfortable with this very small, little camera that he was always hanging around his neck. When I saw some of the stuff that he’d got I was like “I don’t know if I want people to see us all sleeping, there needs to be a little bit of mystery”. The whole band was a little nervous about what Tom was doing. When he said he was going to make a feature documentary, at first nobody thought he was going to be making anything other than some goofy little stuff for our website, but when he announced his intention to try to make a full documentary, everybody was nervous because they knew he had so much weird, unflattering, personal, private footage. There was some anxiety for sure about that, but that he ultimately did, and when everyone in the band saw it, everybody was so happy with it because it seemed like a National song almost; it seemed like the perfect kind of movie for our band. Even though it is really revealing, I think it also does something much more important than that.
Tom, did you ever feel an internal conflict between being a filmmaker and a brother? Did you worry about including those embarrassing moments even though you knew they would make the film better?
Because I’m not a big fan of them, I wasn’t really concerned about what I should put in and what I shouldn’t. I really wasn’t concerned about shooting Brian (The National’s Drummer) in the shower, I really wasn’t concerned about whether they thought I should shoot that or I shouldn’t. I just shot what I felt was interesting and at the time and it was awful. Occasionally there would be talking about band business, I find that boring anyway and I assumed it would be boring for the fans.
Matt: Tom, did you ever worry about ruining our image as a band?
Tom: No… Never. [Laughs]
Matt: That’s good we didn’t know that…
Tom was it always your intention to reveal a different side to The National because, at first, they can appear quite melancholic and your picture brings that sense of humour and levity?
Well yeah, to be quite honest my initial intention, when I was filming them in the beginning, was that I wanted to have some fun with them… at least a little bit. I think they’re wrongly accused of being a melancholy band, I think they have a few rockers, but I just wanted to show that they’re really nice guys. They’re not dark, depressing people, they’re just guys that just make the music that comes to them when they make a new album, but they’re actually very fun guys to be around, and to reveal that was my first initial intention. When we were looking at all of my interview footage, I asked those normal rock doc questions and they were boring, but when I started complaining about Matt to the rest of the band, and they would respond by giving me life advice, I thought that was funny. I was wasting their time talking about a guy in a band, my brother, and they are sitting down for an interview in a movie but they’re doing all the heavy lifting. They’re helping me, the documentarian, I felt that showed them to be really nice guys. Success didn’t come easy to them and they worked really hard, which revealed a lot about their character. It revealed a lot about how open and nice they are and I think that was something I felt like a lot of the indie-rock press knows nothing about. I think The National get a shitty rap for being melancholy, I don’t even know what that means… I know what melancholy means, but y’know?
I found it to be a really funny film. Despite those sombre moments it’s also really nicely balanced and I think you definitely accomplished that goal.
Tom: To be truthful, we all thought it was very funny that when I was off the tour and I finally got fired, we were left with Matt’s younger brother, me, who doesn’t like the band but has tonnes of footage of the band, and now this metalhead is trying to make a documentary. I was just the wrong person to be making a documentary about The National and I felt there was something inherently really funny about that scenario, that in itself already takes the piss out of them.
The film draws upon it heavily, but in the past you’ve mentioned the distance between yourselves as brothers at times, and there is obviously a nine-year age gap between the two of you. Now that you’re on the other end of making the film and marketing it, do you feel like you have exorcised some of those demons you had as brothers?
Matt: The process of Tom being on tour and then him having to go through this whole creative struggle to try to make something out of this experience, I think he figured out a lot and exorcised some of his own demons. He was often his own worst enemy and gave up on things and that’s a big theme in the movie. It’s about persistence and not quitting, so in a weird way, Tom’s biggest challenge was just to finish the thing. To me it didn’t matter if it was good or not, I just really wanted Tom to see it through, and that was the biggest breakthrough for him, the understanding that things are ultimately bad until they get good and you have to just stay with it. As far as brothers, I realised I have to stop trying to shape Tom into something that I think he should be, for instance more like me, and realise that he’s just a very different person and he swims through the world with a different stroke, and through this process I began to understand him better and respect the way he is in the world. It’s nothing like the way I am but he has his own vision, and manner, I’ve stopped seeing and treating him like a little brother and more as a peer now. I think we both learned to understand each other better… hopefully.
Matt, your lyrics are so evocative and visual, have movies inspired that song writing process for yourself?
When I’m writing a lot of moments in songs I am seeing a scene, it plays out as visuals in my head, and I’m describing that scene, so yes, one of the things I do when writing is to think in terms of “is this a cinematic moment?” I doesn’t have to be a big one, but I like putting in the details, for example, the colour of people’s shoes or where people are in the physical setting of a room, or moment, or place, so I’m sure that’s because I’m thinking of writing a mini screenplay sometimes in the songs, so yeah you’re definitely right about that. It’s funny because now there’s a film about our band but it’s nothing like the type of film I would have visualised, which is really good. I think anybody else making a film about our band would have made a much more reverential and poetic film, but Tom, not having the reverence for the music, or even for me, he’s my little brother and just sees me as his annoying overbearing older brother, he wasn’t a fan and it has led him to make a much more interesting movie than anybody else could have. We didn’t know he was going to make a good movie, in fact everybody was worried he was going to make a terrible movie, so everybody was relieved and blown away by what he ended up pulling together.
Tom: There’s an old saying… my style of making this movie was that I went in unprepared, but I think that’s my style. There’s an old saying… about the difference between picking up a guitar and trying to figure it out for yourself, and not having lessons. You learn to play a guitar by yourself and you learn to discover music and your own style instead of taking proper lessons and knowing all the chords and notes, because then you already know what it’s going to sound like before you even play it.
Tom: That’s the way I want to make movies. Why prepare? If you prepare then you know exactly what it’s going to be. Why not go in unprepared and then you will discover it for yourself?
Matt: [To Tom] That’s a really bad idea. You keep saying “there’s an old saying”, what’s the old saying?
Tom: That’s the old saying… proper guitar lessons versus picking it up and just learning the guitar by yourself.
Matt: That is not an old saying.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this question before, and I know you never actually said this, but do you still think indie-rock is pretentious bullshit Tom?
Matt: He did say that.
Tom: [To Matt] You said that more than I said that. Look, I don’t think that it’s necessarily pretentious bullshit, I think metal can be just as pretentious, especially nowadays, I’m just not a big indie-rock fan but it’s been nice having Matt as my older brother, and not being a fan is kind of an easy out for me all the time, I don’t have to give my opinions on the music, it’s just not for me. They’re a bunch of nice guys but I like rock’n’roll, I like metal.
Mistaken for Strangers will be released in cinemas from 27 June 2014, with a special screening and live satellite Q & A in 50+ cinemas on Saturday 14 June http://dogwoof.com/mistakenforstrangers