Hours and hours digging through material, carefully placing things in the right order, puzzling out a sequence of events from the past… documentary filmmaking and paleontology have a lot in common! Director Todd Miller recounts his experience making the documentary Dinosaur 13, about the 1990 discovery of “Sue,” the most complete T. Rex skeleton ever found – and the 10-year legal battle that followed her discovery.


First, there was the book Rex Appeal.

Wait – before that, there was the idea. Summer, 2011: I packed up the truck and spend the summer traversing the country interviewing and shooting dinosaur hunters for an untitled docu-art-adventure-thriller-film. Basically, it was a chance to get out of New York with some friends and get a little fresh air and not have to deal with any commercial or corporate production jobs for a while.

Somewhere between a dinosaur auction in Texas and proposing to my girlfriend in Colorado, I finished reading Rex Appeal. I was hooked.

The book details the world’s greatest dinosaur find, a T. rex collected in 1990, and the 10-year aftermath of the lives of the discoverers that found it. The last stop on our trip was to meet the author, paleontologist Peter Larson. Peter runs the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in the picturesque Black Hills of South Dakota.

After spending the day with Peter, and meeting his co-author, Kristin Donnan, we offered to option the book. Our pitch was this: a docu-drama of the events in the book, conducting first-person on-camera interviews of everyone, shooting reenactments of events discussed, probably’ll take two years; we don’t have a ton of money but we’ll work harder then anyone else and we’ll make sure we get it right. We closed the deal with a handshake.

Immediately, the Black Hills Institute started providing us footage. Footage of everything: the original dig, fossil preparation, town protests when the dinosaur was seized, etc. It was incredible firsthand accounts of all significant events. We scrapped the idea of complete reenactments. The archival footage cut down our production costs, which I personally appreciated, since funding was coming from my savings account. I’d made a decent living in commercial/corporate production for over 10 years and had always saved as much as possible for an exit strategy. I thought my money could keep us funded for two years, which, fingers crossed, would be all we needed. It took three… so family, friends, and an understanding wife with a full-time job as an agency producer helped us cross the finish line.


The dig site where Sue was first unearthed.

It also helped that, besides myself, there was only one other crew member: DP Tom Petersen. We’d worked together for years, so walking into a room and setting up cameras, lights, audio, etc. was second nature. Plus, we owned all our own gear and didn’t mind a sleeping bag over a hotel, which kept costs down. If you have to spend endless days and nights on the road in the Badlands for months on end, Tom is the man you want.

Before our next trip out West from NYC, I began extensive research. My tour guide for this was Kristin Donnan, co-author of Rex Appeal. An accomplished writer, she had the unique ability to translate complex issues into language that everyone could understand. She provided not only a ton of insight into the world she had uncovered 20 years before me, but supplied us with contact info for numerous interviewees for the film.

Next, Tom and I started shooting. For interviews, we always had two cameras: DSLRs; one wide, one tight. During an interview, Tom would reposition the second camera multiple times to give the illusion of a multi-cam shoot. We let our interview subjects talk for hours, sometimes days. Most had on-camera experience, so they were trained to answer in unemotional soundbytes. We spent a lot of time working with them to emotionally reconnect with events from two decades before. Since I was also the editor, I didn’t mind the extra work. In total, we would have over 30 on-camera interviews and over 20 phone interviews to pull information from.

In between our interviews, Tom and I shot B-roll, of everything from western landscapes and night timelapses to dinosaur bones in the field and on exhibition. We also shot several reenactments for scenes that needed something more than simply “theater-in-the-mind”. For this we recruited Peter Larson’s son Tim, who also was the in-house photographer for the Black Hills Institute, and supplied us with the approximately 300 hours of archival footage. Tim also happened to be an actor and looked a lot like his father. His contribution was essential and we will be forever grateful to him.

During production I was constantly editing the film on my laptop: at home in NYC, on a plane to our next interview, or in the back of the truck in the Badlands. Once we had the first 30 minutes of a rough cut with temp music, I turned to music composer Matt Morton.

I’d known Matt since we were kids and we had worked together for years on short-form stuff. For this film I asked him to do something he had never done before… a classical, sweeping, orchestral score. We used the first 30 minutes to set the tone and tempo for the rest of the film. Once we got that nailed, we were off to the races.


Peter Larson, Susan Hendrickson and team at dig site.

Together we worked back and forth to finish the film in time for the IFP Film Week in NYC in the fall of 2013. Once we were accepted, things took on a surreal life of their own. We got a top-notch entertainment attorney, sales agent, and immediate interest from major film festivals, most notably Sundance.

We raced to submit the final cut to them. My daughter was born in November 2013 and instantly became my assistant editor while I sat hunched over a laptop at home, finalizing motion graphics. Matt tirelessly pounded out the final score. We made the deadline.

A month later, Sundance offered us the opening night slot for U.S. Documentaries. Unbelievable. With the last of our money, we got a proper sound mix and color-correct/conform done in time for the festival. We were flying high, then… in the wee hours of the morning following opening night, Lionsgate and CNN Films partnered to acquire our film. Indie-storybook ending complete: it still happens, we’re proof. MM

Dinosaur 13 opens in limited theaters and On Demand Friday, August 15, 2014, courtesy of Lionsgate.

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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODChTN_2SCQ]