Speaking from a cab taking him to a hotel before tonight's screening of his film Dinosaur 13 at Lido Live Theater in Newport Beach, the documentary's director/producer/editor Todd Douglas Miller mentioned that he hopes audiences understand the importance of science education and natural history because, "We need more people out there digging."
But if that leaves you expecting a dry cinematic tutorial on the largest, nearly complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found, are you in for a wild ride. The little indie hit of Sundance packs elements of a legal thriller, David vs. Goliath (in the form of a rag-tag band of paleontologists vs. the U.S. government, Native American tribes, powerful museums and academic paleontologists) and a love story (between man and woman and, especially, man and a T.rex named Sue).
Speaking of digging, Miller did much of it himself, incorporating hours of research and archival news footage from the 1990 discovery through the dramatic events that followed involving ownership and criminal intent into his breezy 95-minute film.
Indeed, the filmmaker said his original pitch, based on the book Rex Appeal by paleontologist Peter Larson and his ex-wife Kristin Donnan, included much more use of actors to reenact actual events. That proved mostly unnecessary because Larson's Black Hills Institute in South Dakota provided so much footage–much of it on old VHS tapes. (Miller, Larson and Donnan are scheduled to appear at this evening's Orange County Film Society screening.)
Sue Hendrickson, who was working with Larson and his brother Neel's Black Hills Institute, found the T.rex that would later be named after her. The team painstakingly removed the bones that a South Dakota cliff grew up around, and the institute paid $5,000 to the presumed land owner, who is said to have received the most-ever for dinosaur bones up to that point.
Presumed is the key word, and let's just leave it at that for those who have not had the pleasure of taking in a documentary that will elicit feelings of elation, sadness, disappointment, anger and redemption before the end credits roll.
Miller mentions the passion project took three years to make, and while he would not disclose the budget or how much Lionsgate and CNN Films ponied up for Dinosaur 13, he notes the production was totally self-financed. The director adds that he, director of photography Thomas Peterson and music composer and Miller's friend since childhood Matt Morton made their greatest payments for what would be their first feature-length film in personal hours.
"Tom and I preferred sleeping bags to motels," Miller said with a laugh.
The long time on the ground allowed the filmmakers to get to know a cast of nonfictional characters that had been delivering short sound bites to the media for years–this was a case that really dragged on and on. But thanks to all those hours spent with them, some very emotional, on-camera moments from the present day were coaxed out of the subjects.
The payoff was the version of Dinosaur 13 screening tonight, already having won the endorsement of Larson and the other key players. It was also shown at a Black Hills film festival to tears and cheers from a community that invested much emotionally to keeping Sue in South Dakota.
And speaking of payoffs, Miller says that since the film's world premiere at Sundance in January, there have been "some really good talks" with the T.rex's current landlord, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
"We may bring back at least a little piece of Sue."
DINOSAUR 13 SCREENS AT 7:30 THIS EVENING AT LIDO LIVE THEATER IN NEWPORT BEACH, FOLLOWED BY A Q&A. IT'S AN ORANGE COUNTY FILM SOCIETY MEMBER-ONLY EVENT (NO TICKETS SOLD AT THE DOOR). $129 YEARLY MEMBERSHIP INCLUDES SCREENINGS OF THIS AND SEVERAL MORE FILMS BEFORE THEY HIT THEATERS. VISIT ORANGECOUNTYFILMSOCIETY.COM.
DINOSAUR 13 IS NOT OPENING IN ORANGE COUNTY THEATERS BUT WILL BE AVAILABLE VIA VIDEO ON DEMAND STARTING FRIDAY.
The trailer and poster follow …