BY NATHAN PAYNE
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Tom Berninger is used to being in front of the camera.
His comfort zone doesn't extend to standing before a group of students.
But that's where documentarian Berninger found himself on Wednesday, positioned before two clutches of young filmmakers from Interlochen Fine Arts Camp in a crowded lecture hall.
His assignment: discuss what it takes to become a successful filmmaker.
"I'm not a teacher," he said, a preface to a lecture during which he detailed the trials and tribulations of producing the documentary "Mistaken for Strangers."
Berninger spent a year on tour with his brother's band, The National, intending to make a documentary about the music group while working as a roadie, but ended up making a film about the relationship between two siblings, one famous, and one who probably wouldn't be recognized while walking down the street by even his most devoted fans.
But his words were as important as any the students could have heard from any highfalutin, successful documentary filmmaker who makes a movie with the support of a major producer or a large bankroll.
The film this year was recognized by Tribeca Film Festival officials, who chose it for the festival's opening night screening.
"If you want to make a film, just don't compare yourself to anybody else," Berninger said. "We all go through that."
Tiffany Carlson, 17, Griffin Olis, 15, and Anna Jaoudi, 16, squeezed themselves onto two steps in the NMC Scholars Hall as Berninger spoke. The trio were busy filming the lecture with small digital video cameras, but occasionally paused, enthralled with the message from the man who a year ago was as far as they from fame.
They attended the lecture to work on a documentary they are producing as a final project for a three-week camp.
Carlson, Olis and Jaoudi were part of a large group of budding filmmakers who were to spend a few days following Berninger. They set out to make a short documentary about the newly famous filmmaker, but ended up getting much more than footage.
"We're kind of on the same path as him," Jaoudi said.
Berninger said he quit his job working for a TV station in an effort to find himself and accepted an offer from his brother, Matt, to hit the road with the indie-rock band. At first, the graduate of the Montana State University film school set out to make short clips for the band's website and a larger documentary the group could market.
But Berninger wandered aimlessly as the tour progressed.
It wasn't until near the end of the year-long gig that Berninger began to realize what his story was about, he said.
"I had no intention of making a documentary, especially this movie," Berninger said. "I was the wrong person to make a proper documentary on the band. You never know where the story is going to take you.
"I was in my late-20s and early-30s, still trying to figure myself out."
The students listened as Berninger, who lived in his parent's basement just a few years ago, and readily says he hitched a ride on his brother's coattails of fame, explained the process of trimming 200 hours of raw film and arranging it into a story that made sense.
"You never finish a film, you just abandon it," said the film's producer Craig Charland, who helped Berninger finish the documentary.
Carlson, Olis and Jaoudi nodded as they listened to the advice. They would face the same task during the following days as they attempt to finish a documentary about the man who filmed a documentary about filming a documentary. The short will appear in the minutes before a screening of Berninger's film Saturday night at Lars Hockstad Auditorium.
"Any filmmaker would be lying if they said they're not scared out of their mind," Berninger said, glancing toward the youngest filmmakers in the room.
After the lecture, as they began to pack equipment into bags and brainstorm the next step in the filmmaking process, Carlson grinned with a little extra confidence.
She and her cohorts took something far more important than an education from the hour-long talk.
They gained the most important ingredient for a good story, inspiration.