Twenty years of T. rex

Thursday, April 24, 2014

ON STAGE — The filmmakers and participants of “Dinosaur 13” are welcomed onstage after the premier screening for a question-and-answer session. From left are Sundance Film Festival senior programmer David Courier; Matt Morton, music; Tom Petersen, director of photography; Pete Larson; Pat Duffy, Pete’s attorney from the case; Todd Miller, director; author Kristin Donnan Standard; and Bruce Ellison, Neal Larson’s attorney from the case.

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.

The Original Idea

Miller first set out to make an art film about paleontology, which would allow him to capture the breathtaking scenery and unusual characters of a one-of-a-kind profession. He did his research, targeting six well-known scientists, researchers and field paleontologists. In each interview, he searched for “the story” — today’s version of famous past rivalries and competitions that made history exciting and our country’s museum collections great.

“I kept asking: in this whole industry, is there a rivalry? And everybody kept saying, no, but there’s an issue with commercial versus academic work,” Miller recalls. “At first I said, ‘Who cares about that?,’ but I soon realized that this was of great importance to them.”

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.”

The art of film

Recall “The Thin Blue Line,” a documentary by Errol Morris that is remarkable for both content and artistic reasons. It successfully argued that a man had been wrongly convicted of murder in Texas, and it accomplished this through a signature approach to documentary that has since become iconic. Morris used “artistic reenactments,” which means that he shot, for example, the feet of an actor dressed as a policeman—a policeman walking to the car where his assailant was waiting. ­Various angles of the black polished shoes and pressed blue cuffs would be used several times throughout the movie, as the viewer experienced the story from different perspectives. The shot became haunting, familiar and exemplary of how we all can see things differently, depending on circumstances.
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.

A “reel” SD Story

Miller’s trek started in 2011, when he cashed in his 401k and other savings to make his first feature film. His company, Statement Pictures, does short films for corporations (he did one for Black Hills Bronze in Hill City), and he had made two short creative films in his spare time — but “Dinosaur 13” was to be his first long-form artistic expression. He thought it would take three years to shoot and edit—and amazingly, he came in ahead of schedule and on budget. He was his own producer, made his own shot lists, wrangled interviews and chatted up the locals. He and Petersen shot all the footage and ordered in pizza. For a movie, it was pretty smooth sailing.

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.”


BH Film Festival nears

By Mitzi Moore

The fifth annual Black Hills Film Festival kicks off with Dinosaur 13 at the Elks Theater in downtown Rapid City on April 30. A great success at the Sundance Film Festival, this Hill City story was immediately acquired by major media companies and can also be seen in Hill City on Saturday, May 3, where it will be paired with special presentations.

This year’s lineup of more than 40 films will feature documentaries, shorts and feature films from South Dakota and around the world. The festival plays host to a number of industry professionals and many filmmakers will be on hand after their film’s debut to answer audience questions while others will conduct in-depth seminars on the art of movie making.

The schedule is as follows: Wednesday, April 30 in Rapid City, “Cinema Celebration” at Main St. Square followed by independent film premieres at the Elks Theatre in Rapid City both Wednesday and Thursday. To make the most of the Black Hills Film Festival experience, it is highly recommended purchasing a full or VIP festival pass or a new day pass. You can purchase Film Festival passes at Elks Theatre in Rapid City, Warriors Work Gallery in Hill City or the Black Hills Film Office at the Visitor Information Center in Hill City or by calling 605-574-9454.

Available only in the print version of the Hill City Prevailer, to subscribe call 605.574.2538.


Tin City to host SDCHIP event

By Mitzi Moore

Tin City Lodge #112 will host a fundraiser event at the Alpine Inn in Hill City on Sunday, April 27, at 1 p.m. to support West River Masonic Sponsored SDCHIP events.

The South Dakota Masonic CHIP (SDCHIP) kit is the most comprehensive service of its kind. SDCHIP is provided at no charge to the public and all of the identifying items generated during SDCHIP are given to the child’s family. Only the permission slip is retained by the Masons of South Dakota. No copies of any ID materials are kept on file by any of the organizers.

The SD Child Identification Program (SDCHIP) addresses the fact that over one million children are reported missing in the United States each year. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, on average, a child is reported missing every 43 seconds in the United States alone.
The last SDCHIP event was held at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, where the Masons generated 613 kits. Volunteers included 95 people, including Masons from many different Lodges in the area, as well as Rapid City Central and Rapid City Stevens High School honor society members, Douglas junior ROTC members, Vo—Tech students, nursing students and physician assistants, retired senior volunteer program members, School of Mines football players, South Dakota Sheriff’s Association members, South Dakota Dental Association members and representatives from the South Dakota Highway Patrol and the Attorney General’s Office. All volunteered their time and expertise to help make this program a huge success.

At this year’s event, there will be a keynote speaker from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. This is a limited seating event with only 150 tickets available on a first come first serve basis. The cost is $50 per plate. Tickets can be reserved by contacting Jack Welker at 381-1293, Mike Rodham 391-8813 or Bob Stanfiel 939-4262.

Available only in the print version of the Hill City Prevailer, to subscribe call 605.574.2538.


Progress is credit to all

Every year since 2001 when we put together our first annual Progress Edition in Custer and Hill City we have been amazed at all the positive changes that have occurred in our Southern Hills communities in the past year. These editions are all made possible by the hard-working business people and community leaders in our area who work in conjunction and cooperation with our various city and governmental entities. We have a good mix of business and public officials working together to improve and enhance the lives of our Southern Hills residents.

In Custer we look around and see city officials gradually making improvements to the former elementary school which will be the permanent home of city offices and the YMCA sometime in the near future. In the meantime, the Custer Volunteer Fire Department is expanding its vehicle storage facilities in an adjacent corner building formerly occupied by Allen’s Home Furnishings. Unseen is a massive sewage re-line improvement project taking place under downtown area streets and other locations.

Custer County recently completed two major bridge projects, the Cheyenne River Bridge and 8th Street Bridge. Custer County Housing Authority continues to make positive strides in improving its image and rental operation.

On the other side of the county, the Town of Hermosa has completed a major water project. South of Custer the Southern Black Hills Rural Water System continues its march northward from Hot Springs and into Custer County.

Commercial buildings formerly vacant are now being occupied with up and running ventures. On the far west edge of the city is Mac’s Grub, the former home of Taco John’s. Just south on Highway 385 we have a new gun shop in a brand new building. Claude and Cristie Smith are at it again as they remodel the future home of another one of their food businesses in the 400 block of Mt. Rushmore Road.

Brian and Janet Boyer, owners of Buglin’ Bull Restaurant and Sports Bar, decided to diversify when they purchased the former Main Street Market Place building just a couple buildings east of their present location. They plan to have a gift shop, bakery and coffee shop and ice cream  store in their new building.

In Hill City, Prairie Berry, a family-owned business operated by Sandi Votja and Matt Keck, continues to expand with a new operation, Miner Brewing Co., a remodeled tasting room, a private venue in the former Mistletoe Ranch building and more wines and beers. The project, which started January 2012, should near completion in May. And in case you’re wondering, yes, the wines are still winning awards for excellence. They’re up to 775 now.

Two cabin operations have new owners. Both Cindy and Dave Dickmeyer, owners of Robins Roost Cabins, and Doug and Mary Klar, owners of Trails End Cabins, purchased their properties after vacationing in the area. The cabins aren’t the only things under new ownership. Slate Creek Grille was purchased by Patricia Cuny, Drake Peterson and Michelle Houdek weeks ago from former owners John and Kris Knapp, Pat and Lisa Wiederhold and Chad and Amy Lockhart.

There have also been many milestones in Hill City over the past year. Teddy Bear Town has reached over 9,000 teddy bears and the building Hill City CafĂ© calls home celebrates 100 years. As part of the celebration, the building went under a massive renovation and will re-open with a grand breakfast celebration.

It has been another year of great progress in the Southern Black Hills as we look forward to another successful tourism season, which already seems to be off to an early start. Congratulations to all who make good things happen in our area. Keep up the great work!


Arts council honors Rost, Dickey

Thursday, April 10, 2014

MANY HOURS – Kathy Rost, left, received the Volunteer of the Year Award from Kristin Donnan Standard, president of the Hill City Arts Council. Rost is the volunteer coordinator for the arts council, making sure every arts council event is staffed with adequate volunteers. She has been at every Open Stage this year to oversee the popular event. [PN Photo/CAROL WALKER]
IN BUSINESS TO SERVE – Dan Dickey, left, was awarded the Business Volunteer of the Year by Kristin Donnan Standard, president of the Hill City Arts Council. Dickey, owner of Desperados, emcees Open Stage, provides ice and beverages for the Sculpture in the Hills event, drives his vintage truck in local parades advertising the arts council, and is generally available to serve when asked. [PN Photo/CAROL WALKER]

By Carol Walker

Programs sponsored by the Hill City Arts Council (HCAC) are meant to promote creativity in many realms, but, as with any worthwhile project, they don’t just happen. There is plenty of work involved. Two people were honored at the HCAC annual meeting last Wednesday for their dedication to making art events happen. Kristin Donnan Standard, president of the HCAC, presented Kathy Rost with the Volunteer of the Year award and Dan Dickey of the Desperados with the Business Volunteer of the Year.

Rost has been the volunteer coordinator for the HCAC, making sure volunteers are lined up for events, and keeping track of volunteer hours for the board of directors in order to use that information for potential grants. She has also been the chairman for Open Stage, held twice a month at Chute Rooster during January, February and March. Rost and her husband, Winston Barclay, attend every Open Stage during the season.

Dickey has been serving as the emcee for Open Stage for a number of years and he always lends his Desperados vintage pickup for the arts council to be featured in local parades. Dan and the Desperados restaurant provide beverages and ice for the participants at the Sculpture in the Hills Show and Sale.
“Dan just always shows up with his time and goodies whenever they are needed,” said Standard.
These awards were given out after several presentations highlighting activities from the past year and pursuits for the year ahead. These activities fall in line with at least two of six goals determined by HCAC.

The first goal is to provide three major community programs annually. Open Stage is one of the three programs, and 2014 was the best year yet in terms of audience, as well as monetary donations. A new award was established this year called the Thorpe Award, honoring Steve Thorpe, a musician who has promoted and performed at Open Stage. He was given a cash award and certificate, and in future years, other musicians will receive this award. A bronze harmonica is in the works to also be included in the award.

“We have been working with Jim and Joy Peterson and it has been a positive year for everyone. They would like us to have one more Open Stage and they will donate the bar proceeds to the arts council. So on April 5 we will have an Encore Open Stage. This just shows what a well-run, well-received event can do for us,” said Standard.

Sculpture in the Hills Show and Sale is another program in the works and scheduled for June 28 and 29 on Elm St. in Hill City between the Alpine Inn and Granite Sports. Sarah King, chairman of the sculpture show committee, said their expected outcomes for the show are to attract a minimum of 2,000 visitors over a two-day period and that 50 percent of the artists will sell sculptures.

“In 2013 we had 2,707 attend the show and 65 percent of the artists sold pieces, so we did achieve our projected outcomes. We have six new artists this year, so we are excited about that,” said King.
The third program is the High Plains Art magazine, which is now a web publication and will be in print in 2015.

The second goal has been to participate in annual events sponsored by other community organizations. One upcoming event in this category is the Black Hills Film Festival scheduled for Apr. 30-May 4.

According to Chris Van Ness, organizer for the event, it will begin on Wednesday with a Cinema Celebration on Main St. Square in Rapid City, followed by a showing of Dinosaur 13 at the Elks Theater. A post-show party will be at Murphy’s Pub and Grille. The rest of the weekend will be staged in Hill City with a variety of films, workshops and panel discussions and another showing of Dinosaur 13.

“I think sometimes we take ourselves for granted. The Black Hills Film Festival is amazing. It is what you could find in big cities and at bigger festivals. We have films by South Dakota people as well as films made by people from all over, and we have a Native American track. It is top notch,” said Standard.

Lesta Turchen talked about a new event “Beak Week,” that will piggy back on Art Extravaganza, sponsored by the Hill City Area Chamber of Commerce on Saturday, May 10. It will run from May 10 through Saturday, May 17. Turchen said the week will be filled with bird related activities including art, quilts, wine and a bird-watching tour on the Mickelson Trail.

“It should bring in a whole new group of people to Hill City. Jerry Cole [chamber director] is enthused about this also,” said Turchen.

Turchen also reported on the economic impact of HCAC activities during the course of the year, using a calculator from Americans for the Arts. The calculations showed the events generated $696,152 in total expenditures in Hills City, supported 18 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs and created $358,578 in household income. The events brought in $33,423 in local government revenue and produced $33,203 in state government revenue.

Memberships in the HCAC were encouraged at the meeting. Anyone interested in membership and promoting the arts in Hill City can check it out at


The hunt is on!

Calling all hunters, of the Easter egg type, that is. Whether those heading down the Bunny Trail this Easter will leave tracks in the snow or enjoy warm sunshine will have to wait to be determined, but one thing is certain: there will be treasures to be found in Hill City and Keystone again this year.

Children are invited to hunt for Easter eggs in Hill City this Saturday, April 12, starting at 2 p.m. The annual Easter Egg Hunt, sponsored by the Hill City Area Chamber of Commerce, Hill City Mercantile and Harney Peak Inn, will be held at the Visitor Information Center. Age groups for particpants are 0-3, 4-7 and 8-11.

Hunters are encouraged to find special eggs to receive a prize and are also reminded to bring their own Easter baskets. Afterwards there will be face painting and photos with the Easter Bunny.

In Keystone, the hunt for Easter eggs will be on Saturday, April 19, at the city park. Donations of colored or white hard-boiled eggs are requested to be dropped off at the library before-hand. An egg-dying session will take place at the library on Thursday, April 17, beginning at 5 p.m. During the hunt, additional surprises will be hidden and prizes will be awarded to four age groups for their finds.


Drummond, Neff win seats on the Keystone townboard

By Bev Pechan

Tuesday’s election in Keystone of two town board trustees for three-year terms will be a first for Keystone’s five-person board, which became official last year after years of controversy and arguments about whether adding two more people to the board would help or harm the overall operations of the city.

Earning the two spots were Dick Drummond and Kwin Neff, both with 67 votes each. Raymond French finished third with 36 votes.

Drummond is new to city politics but says he is interested in helping in any way he can while Neff has a background in geology and mineralogy and wants to use his expertise in working toward the future in Keystone.

Jerry Przybylski, public works director, like maintenance personnel before him, has said that the longtime practice of having a three-person board of trustees was detrimental to conducting city business since those trustees could not engage in dialogue with employees about a particular need or problem without constituting a quorum or requiring a meeting.  One of the advantages of having a five-person board, some have said, is that Keystone would then be allowed under state statute to have a planning and zoning commission to address some of the many issues that have not been able to be legally resolved in the past.

Available only in the print version of the Hill City Prevailer, to subscribe call 605.574.2538.