Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood. Ahead of a VOD and theatrical release this Friday, we talked with the duo about their film influences, deleted scenes, how the documentary came to be, how the experience informed their latest album, and much more.
The Film Stage: In the press notes there’s an anecdote about how when you two were kids, Matt came home from seeing Predator to tell you what an amazing film it was; has film always been a shared experience for you two? I don’t mean just going to see them together but rather in that they made you share emotions?
Tom Berninger: Yeah, when my brother was 16 and I was 7, we’d sit out on our driveway and Matt would actually talk pretty intelligently to a 7-year-old about movies. Of course, those movies were mainly Predator and Terminator and Alien, but we did share a lot in common with movies. Later in life my brother really started to go after those The Graduate and Harold and Maude movies — and I like those movies — but I was deeper into the science-fiction and horror. But we still share a lot of interests in the same things, especially the comedies. I mean my favorite, right now, is probably Alexander Payne, and I think my brother shares some of the same sentiment.
What were the different forms you thought the film would take on? A home video? A concert film?
Tom: Well, the reason it looks the way it does is because I had a camera wrapped around my neck, and all I really wanted to do was make a web series that a website could show; that’s all it was originally going to be, and I never thought about making it a documentary at all. It was lo-fi because it was a tiny little camera wrapped around my neck and I was kind of a fly-on-the-wall and I captured whatever I could; I mean, there was no film crew, there was nothing.
Matt Berninger: I thought maybe he could make a video for us, which he did; he made a scrappy kind of video for our song, “Terrible Love,” and then little stuff that we put on our website, but that’s all we really thought Tom was going to be doing, anyway, and none of us expected him to turn it into a feature documentary. If we knew it was going to be that way, we wouldn’t have let him shoot half the stuff he did.
At one point in the film you see a wall containing all these post-it notes with scenes written on them, including ones not in the final film. Can you talk about anything exciting that was cut?
Tom: There was a lot of stuff that was cut. That wall was basically every scene that I liked, but that didn’t necessarily mean the band liked it. There’s a few scenes, I mean, on tour, I had a crush on this girl, and I think everyone knew it but she had this boyfriend and she knew that I kind of liked her, but we cut together a little interview I did with her that made her feel very awkward, where I was asking her if she had a boyfriend. But that was my favorite thing that we cut, and I wish that was left in, but I had some of the band guys in their underwear and Bryan, the drummer, naked in the shower; I think I got every band member naked at some point, but that didn’t quite make it in, thank God.