A documentary about one of America's hottest indie groups that is going "National" has a Montana State University connection.
"Mistaken for Strangers," a documentary that will open nationwide next month, is written, directed and co-produced by Tom Berninger, who graduated from Montana State University in 2002 with a degree in film. Berninger recently screened his film in Bozeman and spent a day talking to MSU film students.
"I thought about going to a big film school, but one of my brother's friends who was in film told me to go to a school where I'd have a great college experience …. Get in trouble... Make a lot of friends … all which I did," Berninger said as he spoke to film students last week.
In addition to making friends at MSU, the likable Berninger has also made a memorable film, which was selected as the opening night film for the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival last year and has since then played to great reviews at festivals around the world. Reviewers describe the film as "truly hilarious and touching."
At first blush, the film is about Berninger and his ill-fated turn as a roadie for the indie-rock band The National, a gig he got because his older brother, Matt Berninger, happens to be the group's lead singer. Tom's job doesn't go so well, and from there the film evolves from a humorous look at the inner workings of a rock band into a touching story about complex family relationships and how they form us, and one man's discovery of his strengths and courage.
"It's a love story," one audience member said about the film's examination of the relationship between the two Berninger brothers.
Berninger screened the film at the Bozeman Film Festival in connection with his appearance at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, which meant it was only a short trip to screen the film in Bozeman, visit his old professors and answer questions from film students at his alma mater.
"This is everyone's dream … to come back to their school and talk about their movie," Berninger said. He told students that he followed a cousin to MSU and never regretted his choice.
"This college and this film school let me make movies …. I made a film my freshman year," he said. "That doesn't happen other places."
Cindy Stillwell, MSU film professor who taught Berninger when he was at MSU and introduced him at the Bozeman festival, said her former student has “made
a fantastic film that makes us all beam with pride.” The film will have its national opening March 25
at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium followed by an appearance by The National.
Berninger is the first to admit that may be surprising for a student who came to MSU because he wanted to make horror films. "More like Herzog's 'Aguirre: Wrath of God' and 'Quest for Fire' than pure horror. Maybe horror action," he said.
Berninger said that after graduation he went to New York, met with a great deal of disappointment and heartbreak and returned to his native Cincinnati to live with his parents. He talked his brother into allowing him to film The National on an international tour with the goal of posting a video blog on the band's website.
From the beginning of the film, it is obvious that things may not go well for Tom. Even though the brothers' faces bear a resemblance, the similarity seems to end there. Matt is tall, spare, aloof, hipster cool. Tom prefers heavy metal and video games. He's accessible, irreverent, relaxed and always in trouble. The audience learns that this is a longstanding pattern in the Berninger family, where Matt was the "quarterback and hero" and Tom was the class clown. Yet, as the film unspools along with Tom's career, the audience sees Tom make some important personal realizations that enable him to make the film only he could make. The last image in the film is of the two brothers memorably linked together.
Berninger said he still lives with his famous brother and his family, although they recently relocated from Brooklyn to LA. "We went out to look at LA and we just stayed, basically," he said.
Berninger told the Bozeman audience that "Mistaken for Strangers" has opened up doors to him, and he is working on another unnamed project. He said he hopes his story may serve as inspiration to those who struggle finding their voice even after "years of heartbreak."
"I wanted to tell the kids that it doesn't matter when you figure it out," said Berninger, who is now 34, of the decade of self-doubt that plagued him. "You just need to figure it out."
His advice to MSU students was to stay in college and take advantage of every opportunity offered them as they discover their own strengths.
"I loved this school, and the five years I was in Montana" Berninger said.
He added that many scenes of Berninger at work with The National while on tour were filmed by MSU film school friends. He said some of his best memories of MSU involve those friends. "I was kind of a punk. But I was also part of a community. Once you graduate it's really hard. When you are in college, you really are free to create.
"The years here helped create who I eventually came to be," he told the screening audience "… Although. it did take me 12 years to figure that out."