Thursday, April 24, 2014
Story and photo by Kristin Donnan Standard
Paleontology isn’t the only profession that operates on geologic time; film production can take forever, too. However, this was not the case with “Dinosaur 13” — the new documentary about the story of Sue, the famous South Dakota Tyrannosaurus rex. This movie skirted the endless funding search and then the logistical nightmares of hiring crew and organizing distant locations. And after the film was finished recently, time seemed to fly. In fact, as of this writing, we’re still in the midst of a distribution whirlwind.
The reason for all of this is Todd Douglas Miller, a regular guy who looks like your slightly disheveled brother. He traditionally wears cargo pants and a hoodie and is often seen lugging around an equipment case and a beer. He’s in disguise as one of those idealistic “independent filmmakers” who is constantly trudging uphill—against all odds, asking for money, a break and a good idea.
In reality, Miller is an accomplished artist, researcher, producer, director, camera operator, editor and businessman. Don’t let that relaxed demeanor fool you; Miller knows exactly what’s happening. And he is ready for every contingency.
Several of his interviewees mentioned Peter Larson and Black Hills Institute, the world’s most famous commercial company. The Institute made the news in the early 1990s with the discovery, preparation and federal seizure of the world’s best T. rex. Black Hills Institute was already on Miller’s list — the last stop on a marathon car trip. At first Miller thought that Larson, his brother, Neal, and their business partner, Bob Farrar, would fill in the last pieces of his movie puzzle.
Then, on the way to South Dakota, he read “Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law, and My Life,” a book Larson co-wrote with the author of this magazine story. Not entirely sure how this angle would play in person, the small crew — consisting of Miller, his wife, Laura Kirby, and director of photography, Tom Petersen — rolled into town and set up for their first Hill City interview.
Within moments, the entire film project changed. Peter Larson’s rendition of a story near and dear to our local hearts made paleontology personal, real and thrilling — and much more than a difference of opinion between academics and professionals. Miller optioned the book the next day, over coffee, with a handshake. At the Sundance Film Festival more than two years later, Miller would tell audiences, “I knew instantly that this was the story I wanted to tell. I threw everything out and started over.”
Morris has inspired countless filmmakers in both documentary and dramatic filmmaking, and Todd Miller is one of them—but he wasn’t thinking about Errol Morris’s reenactments for a paleo movie. Until he read “Rex Appeal.”
"Errol Morris focused on little nuances that you normally wouldn’t focus on in a film,” Miller said. “That’s what happened in ‘Rex Appeal’ — the book talks about fog rolling in, or tents flapping in the wind. The book is written in a cinematic way, and that’s what we were going for.”
So Miller looked with a fresh perspective at the new story—what happened from the discovery of Sue the T. rex through her seizure, auction and unveiling at the Chicago Field Museum, not to mention the legal trials and tribulations of Black Hills Institute principals throughout that time. He saw many opportunities to use Morris’s artistic reenactments in the discovery of the fossil, as well as several other poignant or emotionally charged moments.
As in most filmmaking experiences, however, this second idea changed, too, because Black Hills Institute has archived pretty much everything they’ve ever done. As the largest private fossil company on earth, they’ve been to approximately a zillion sites and had even more experiences. They’ve taken notes, photographs and video—and their hapless media personnel will likely be archiving this material until they are very old and toothless.
The archival footage of Sue’s excavation, as well as Miller’s use of reenactments, became key in his storytelling. It is one of the elements of the film that has received a “thumbs up” in the industry — nationwide and locally. “Archival footage and reenactments were tied seamlessly together,” said Chris VanNess, director of the Black Hills Film Festival. “But the emotional interviews is what makes “Dinosaur 13” a story. People were telling their own stories, and the way Todd interwove them made it uplifting. These characters made the most of a bad situation, and he portrayed that.”
Miller and his usual crew of one—cameraman Petersen—drove back and forth to South Dakota several times, spending one or two months on each trip, between stints on their day jobs. They camped in the Badlands, shot in every season, researched every element of the story they could. They invited all sides of the story to share their perspectives — Institute personnel, Hill City townsfolk, government agents, prosecutors, jurors. Some said yes, and some didn’t. In the end, Miller created a movie that depicts the story as he believes it happened. In the end, he made an artistic documentary that felt true — and got the attention of the industry.
It also got the attention of the Chicago Field Museum, which is where Sue the T. rex finally landed (you’ll have to see the movie to find out why). Representatives of the Field Museum attended the Sundance screening and are considering ways in which the film’s distribution — the “simple act” of getting the story out to the general public — might strengthen its ties with Black Hills Institute.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Institute and its extended family also have created their own collection of fossils over the last four decades. The world’s second-largest T. rex, named Stan, is currently on display in Hill City, along with a wonderful cast of Cretaceous characters—the basis for a world-class museum right here in T. rex Country.
Who knows what the future holds for the museum? A little publicity can go a long way.
Miller’s is the type of story that the independent film industry loves. It’s about real people in real situations, made by real people who care enough to drive across the country over and over, camping out in cabins and editing footage into the night. By now, they’ve been integrated into the fabric of Hill City; most residents know what brand of beer they like.
“Dinosaur 13” premiered in January this year at the Sundance Film Festival — showing on opening night to a sell-out crowd that gave the project a standing ovation. Immediately after the screening, Miller was on the phone with lawyers and sales agents — who were on the phone with distribution companies. Domestic distribution of the documentary would sell that night to Lionsgate and CNN FILMS; various international distribution deals are currently underway, although Dogwoof has acquired UK rights and Madman will distribute in Australia. Theatrical screenings are expected across the country in late summer.
The first post-Sundance venue where viewers can see the film is in hometown Hill City and environs, where the Black Hills Film Festival will run the film as one of its “Reel South Dakota Stories.” The festival takes place in Hill City and Rapid City from April 30 through May 4.
“This is exactly the kind of movie we’re looking for,” VanNess said. “It’s high quality, uplifting and about people from South Dakota. We believe it and our other Reel South Dakota Stories will have a positive impact on our communities.”
It’s been a wild ride for a handful of filmmakers—and fossil geeks who started a rock shop during college. And this is just the beginning of the next chapter in the story. Plus, those of us who have lived the saga of Sue have the opportunity to share it with people around the world — an experience Pete Larson already had at Sundance.
“As I sat there in the theater, watching people’s faces — as they cried and laughed — I saw them become involved in our story,” Larson said. “It became very clear that Todd Miller had done something truly wonderful.”