HILL CITY | Todd Miller’s new movie is all about a gal named Sue — a 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex fossil named Sue.
The film “Dinosaur 13” debuted Thursday night in Park City, Utah, kicking off the Sundance Film Festival — where the film will show each evening through Friday.
Lionsgate and CNN films acquired North American rights to the film on the heels of its premiere. The 105-minute documentary was originally released through Statement Films.
“It’s been an absolutely incredible experience at Sundance, premiering the film on opening night,” said Miller, director and producer of “Dinosaur 13,” in a phone interview from the Sundance festival in Utah. “With Lionsgate and CNN Films acquiring the rights, the film should hit theaters by summertime, with a TV broadcast premiere in the fall. We’d also like to have a Black Hills premiere in the next few months. Everyone in the Hills has helped us out tremendously along this journey.”
The film documents the discovery of Sue – the largest, most extensive and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil yet discovered.
The story goes like this: In August 1990, a group of workers from the Black Hills Institute in Hill City searched for fossils at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation near Faith.
While the rest of the group was in town repairing their truck, paleontologist Sue Hendrickson explored nearby cliffs that the group had not yet checked. As she walked along the base of the cliff, she discovered small pieces of bone. Looking above her, she observed larger bones protruding from the cliff’s wall. She returned to camp with the small bones and reported the discovery to Peter Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute.
Before 1990, only 12 T. rex skeletons had been found, and they were all less than 40 percent complete. When the BHI team discovered Sue –named after Hendrickson – she was 80 percent complete and the 13th T. rex fossil unearthed. That’s how “Dinosaur 13” got its name.
“Dinosaur 13” chronicles the legal battle that ensued over the ownership of Sue. The U.S. government, world-class museums, Native American tribes and competing paleontologists all fought over the dinosaur. Each made a claim to her, accusing the BHI of illegally taking her from public land.
The National Guard eventually carted Sue away from the BHI, prompting an outcry from Hill City residents, where the institute planned to establish a museum displaying the dinosaur. Sue was auctioned off, bought for $8.36 million by Chicago’s Field Museum, where she resides today.
“It was the best of times, because we had just found the bones, but then it was the worst of times. I faced the longest criminal trial in South Dakota history, and was sentenced to two years in prison, all because I failed to fill out some forms. It was a scary time,” Larson said in a phone interview en route to the Sundance Film Festival for the film’s premiere. “The support of people from around the world kept me going during my time in prison.”
According to the website Live Science, Larson and his colleagues faced an array of charges related to collecting and selling fossils. Larson pleaded not guilty, but was convicted of two felonies for customs violations for failing to report cash and travelers checks, as well as two misdemeanors, for which he received a two-year prison term.
Later, Todd Miller, who was interested in dinosaurs, read the book that Larson co-authored with Kristin Donnan about the experience, “Rex Appeal.”
“I was on the road doing an art film when I read it,” Miller said. “The book was amazing. Then I met Peter and everyone from Black Hills Institute and saw how strong they would be on camera. I pitched the film idea, and they said yes.”
Miller and his director of photography, Tom Petersen, packed their truck full of gear and drove from New York to South Dakota to begin shooting.
“The Black Hills and Badlands are some of the most beautiful places in the country. It’s our favorite region,” Miller said.
The filmmakers used first-person narratives from the BHI team that had unearthed Sue. They also incorporated archival material and re-enacted a few scenes in docudrama format.
“The challenge was taking a 10-year tale and whittling it down to two hours,” Miller said.
“I saw a rough cut of the film a few months ago,” said Larson, who still works as president of BHI. “Todd is really a talented filmmaker. I’m excited to see the film at Sundance. But, of course, it’s also emotional to go back to that time.”
“My message to film audiences is this: Dig more dinosaurs.” Miller joked. “No, really, Peter Larson turned a traumatic experience into a positive one. It’s something we can all learn from.
“We also need to remember that fossil resources should be taken seriously,” he said, “and that our national parks do a tremendous job protecting these resources.”