Dressed in his usual dark shirt, suit jacket and matching denim pants, singer Matt Berninger of Brooklyn, N.Y.'s the National is peevishly hammering a beach umbrella into the ground with his dress shoe.
As he settles into a camp chair in a sun-drenched Brooklyn park, an offscreen voice cheerily tells him to relax before peppering him with questions: “On tour, it’s day in and day out — does that ever make you sleepy onstage? … Have you ever woken up, in a nightmare, on the bus because of the movement?”
There’s an argument as the camera wobbles and Berninger leans forward impatiently. “Do you have a notebook with questions written down?” he asks. “Do you have any kind of organization and plan for this film?”
And with that, the new documentary “Mistaken for Strangers” begins.
Ostensibly a look at a rising indie rock band as it tours in support of its breakthrough 2010 album, “High Violet,” the film, with its touches of backstage and performance footage, is less a conventional rock-doc and more the story of two brothers, primarily Berninger’s brother Tom, who struggles through directing a strange, funny and surprisingly touching film, opening in select theaters Friday and available on-demand. Tuesday night, the National hosts a screening at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, followed by a concert.
Sitting in an airily relaxed pizza restaurant in Hollywood, the brothers describe the difficult making of the film, which started as a means for Matt to reconnect with his younger, less successful brother Tom, who was living in Cincinnati at the time. Somewhat envious of the dynamic enjoyed by rest of his band — who are all brothers in Scott and Bryan Devendorf and twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner — Matt hired Tom as assistant tour manager and encouraged him to bring his camera along.
“I wanted to, if anything, make little Web videos,” says Tom, whose longer red hair, beard and denim jacket make him look a bit like a mischievously rumpled, fun house reflection of his brother. “And … to kind of get my professional career going as a videographer. [I had] no documentary intentions at all.”
When his time on tour abruptly ended (turns out being assistant tour manager is very hard), Tom began digging through some 200 hours of footage with Matt’s wife, Carin Besser, at their Brooklyn home. Though he mostly captured silly interludes, the movie’s center emerged in Tom, who often filmed himself in awkward, raw moments like getting drunk alone on the tour bus and breaking down after a rough early screening.
“That’s when she was like, ‘This is your story,’” says Matt, bearded and professorial in a chalk-stripe jacket and jeans. “‘The story is about you and the struggles with yourself and the weird spot you’re in on tour and the weird relationship with your brother.’”
“She convinced me that the heartbreaking, really awful, really embarrassing stuff of my life was the most interesting,” says Tom, who at 34 is nine years younger than Matt. “Eventually, it turned into a movie about me finishing this thing. Mainly because I wasn’t a very good documentarian of the band,” he adds with a typically self-effacing flair.
“Mistaken for Strangers” opened the Tribeca Film Festival last year, and earned positive notice from Michael Moore as well as more unexpected sources. “A lot of people who have come to see our movie, a lot of them hate our band,” Matt says. “They’ve even said to Tom, ‘I gotta tell you, I hate your brother’s band, but I love your movie.’ That’s the best thing we’ve heard about it.”
Across the table, Tom shakes his head. “That … me off.”
“Why does it … you off?” Matt replies. “There are going to be a lot of people who hate your movie, by the way. And love our band,” he adds with a chuckle.
That kind of thick-skinned encouragement comes up often in the documentary, and is familiar to the band as well. One of the biggest indie rock success stories, the National is also one of the genre’s most divisive. After the group’s sixth album was released last year, one prominent critic wrote an essay for Slate simply titled, “Why I Hate the National.” Matt has his own theories.
“The people that love our band talk about our band to everybody, and argue on behalf of our band to their friends, and I think that drives people bananas,” he says. “But, you know, all my favorite bands have been incredibly polarizing bands. I think that means we’re probably doing something right. Because if everybody kind of likes your band? Then you might not be that interesting of a band.”
“I like the National, as far as indie rock goes,” Tom says quickly. “Obviously, I’m somewhat biased.”
“You’d still rather listen to metal than us,” Matt replies. Tom smiles and says, “I know.”
This kind of back and forth points to something that could be surprising to those who superficially identify the band as indie rock’s dour realists. Built upon Berninger’s plaintive baritone and lyrics about everyday anxieties paired with dark and sometimes stormy music, the National doesn’t comfortably align with modern pop’s current appetite for celebratory escapism.
And Berninger relishes playing with that perception. “I am not my rosy self,” he sings on the band’s latest album, “Trouble Will Find Me,” and the documentary often plays like a comedy with Tom’s awkward interviews (“Where do you see the National in 40 years?”) and a standout scene where Matt plays along while Tom tries to stage an absurdly confessional moment in a foggy bathroom mirror.
“I think people that really pay attention to our band, they hear the humor in it,” Matt says. “They hear the optimism in the songs. So in a funny way, I think this movie perfectly represents our band.”
The National, which recently appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” starts a tour this spring that will eventually take it through Europe, but for now the brothers are still together. Matt and his wife recently relocated to Venice, and Tom is living with them as the movie completes its run. Still deciding on his next move, Tom has been taking acting classes, which are also being documented for some future use. He says the brothers have also recently taken up surfing, but his brother is more measured.
“For the record, we have not surfed,” Matt clarifies. “We have taken two lessons, and then I’ve gone out twice without an instructor and almost drowned twice. We’ve been drowning a lot.”
“I got up,” Tom says proudly. “I caught a wave.”
The National, with ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ premiere
Where: The Shrine Auditorium, 655 W Jefferson Blvd., L.A.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
‘Mistaken for Strangers’
Running time: 75 minutes
Playing: In select theaters and on-demand Friday