If there's one thing that can fill a room full of journalists with envy, it's a great, original question.
Director Tom Berninger came up with an instant classic for "Mistaken for Strangers," his new documentary about Brooklyn indie-rock band The National. He asks a member of The National -- whose lead singer, Matt Berninger, happens to be Tom's brother -- if he brings his wallet onstage with him when he performs.
After the film opened the Tribeca Film Festival on April 17, all the writers in the room were smacking themselves in the forehead. Why didn't we think of that?! we kept asking each other.
"He asked a lot of questions like that," Matt, 42, said with a rueful laugh during an interview at the Hilton Fashion District in New York City.
"It kinda came up on the spot," added Tom, who's 33. He got the idea from watching his brother go through his pre-show routine. He puts on a three-piece suit. He drinks "a shit-load of wine."
"You go into this zone," Tom said, addressing Matt directly. "And I just thought, Does he still keep his ID on him? And then I started wondering, Do actors have their Los Angeles drivers’ licenses on them while they’re playing a role?"
"And he had lunch the next day with Robert De Niro, and he didn’t ask Robert De Niro," said Matt.
For the record, Matt does not bring his wallet onstage, though most of the other band members do. "Part of it is that I go out in the crowd a lot, and people look for souvenirs," Matt said.
If these two sound like the kind of brothers who are so close they finish each other's sentences, well, it wasn't always that way. The National comprises five guys: two sets of brothers -- and Matt. He and Tom weren't that close. Tom never liked indie rock. He's a heavy metal guy. For a while, he planned to call the film "For Those About to Weep."
"It's a reference to AC/DC’s 'For Those About To Rock,'" Matt said, "making fun of us for being such a sad-sack band. We kinda thought that was funny."
The Tribeca Film Festival was about to issue a press release announcing that title when executive vice president Paula Weinstein asked Matt and Tom if they were sure they didn't want to change it. It's your last chance, she told them.
Matt's wife, Carin Besser, used to be fiction editor at The New Yorker, and it was her former colleague, editor Willing Davidson, who suggested the title that stuck.
"Mistaken for Strangers," which also happens to be the title of a National song, is a perfect fit for a film that shows how two guys who seem incredibly different on the surface are, when you get down to it, basically the same.
Matt is tall and thin and cosmopolitan; Tom is short and stocky and Midwestern. Matt is reserved and precise and moody; Tom is a sloppy but lovable open book. Matt is a rock star with thousands of adoring fans; Tom is, for most of the movie, a spectacularly inept roadie.
The audience gets to see Tom get fired after missing the tour bus, but some of his real-life misadventures didn't even make it into the final cut. On the very first day he joined the tour, he ripped off the awning of a building in Brooklyn with a U-Haul van.
"The awning that I ripped off was basically an awning store," said Tom.
"Not only did they lose their awning, but people would come up to the awning store and they’ve got this crumpled, shitty, broken awning," said Matt.
In the end, though, Tom and Matt are both artists who've found success by making their pain work for them. Matt had his breakthrough years ago, channeling his frustration over The National's poorly attended club shows into songs whose exquisite bitterness touched fans around the world.
Tom had his eureka moment while editing the film. He'd set out to make something closer to a traditional music documentary, but even he acknowledged that much of what he shot "was so bad." The story he needed to tell, he realized, was his own story: the one where he failed, chose not to give up and ultimately triumphed.
To tell that story, he needed to finish the movie.
He did it with critical assists from Besser and Oscar-nominated editor Marshall Curry, who knew Matt from his previous career in advertising. "Marshall helped us deepen the story a bit, from his bag of tricks," said Besser. "He was the one who told Tom to go interview his parents, which is now such an amazing part of the movie."
In the end, the biggest trick was not smoothing things out so completely that the film lost its rowdy charm. After one too many iterations, "we connected too many dots," Matt said, "and just before the end [Tribeca vice president of programming] Genna Terranova and Paula Weinstein came in and they helped us have faith in that precarious balance, the thing that wasn’t tied up like a bow. ... They were like, you guys, have faith in the blurry version, because that’s where the magic is."
Neither brother gets off easy in the film. They drink, they fight, they call each other names. Sharing all that with the public wasn't exactly comfortable for Matt.
"It’s probably bad for my -- whatever -- image or something like that," Matt said. "But when I saw Tom was actually putting himself way out there, and he was showing very unflattering moments and weak and vulnerable moments of himself … I knew I was in good hands. Especially because my wife was helping craft this thing, and I knew she wasn’t going to make me look like too much of an asshole."
So what advice do these two have for brothers who aren't as close as they'd like to be?
"Shove a camera in somebody’s face and see what happens," said Tom.
"Get two cheap cameras and live on a bus together," Matt added, "and you’ll either end up dead or better friends."