Interview: Director Todd Miller, Peter Larson of ‘Dinosaur 13’

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CHICAGO – When the skeletal remains of a long-lost animal is discovered and pulled from the earth, does anybody really own it? That is the question in the new documentary, “Dinosaur 13,” directed by Todd Miller. It’s the story of discovering those dinosaur bones and the implications for the person who exhumed them, Peter Larson.

“Dinosaur 13” ended up being “Sue” – named for the actual person who first saw the bones, Susan Hendrickson – the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex specimen ever discovered. Sue now resides in the Field Museum in Chicago, but her journey to the final resting place was fraught with the 20th Century notion of who owned her. Director Todd Douglas Miller combines archival footage, news reports and re-creations to unfold the only-in-America story of the final journey to rest of a long dead creature.

Peter Larson
Peter Larson Works on Sue Around the Time of Discovery in ‘Dinosaur 13’
Photo credit: Lionsgate

Peter Larson led Sue’s discovery team, and extracted the bones of the T-Rex back in 1990. His agency, the Black Hills Institute, is a for-profit collector of fossils. In the dispute over who owned his discovery, he was persecuted by the U.S. government, accused with after-the-fact criminal charges and saw his discovery locked in a warehouse for three years.

Todd Miller and Peter Larson sat down for an interview with, and spoke of the making of the documentary, and the twisted karma for a giant reptilian animal who passed away millions of years ago. Todd, this is your feature documentary debut. What attracted you to the subject and how did your point of view evolve as you were preparing the film?

Todd Miller: It began by my reading of the source book, ‘Rex Appeal,’ co-written by Peter and Kristin Donnan Standard, and the whole idea for the film sprang out of that. I was enamored with the subject, and visualized everything that was in the wide-ranging topics in the book – including the science of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. There was so much passion in the book, which included Peter’s ordeal, that I thought it needed to be seen on the big screen in a documentary. Since you were prosecuted in the 1990s, we have since lived through a age in which financial firms can bring the American economy to the brink of Depression, and yet no one goes to jail. How has your perspective of justice changed since you when through your Kafka-esque experience, and where do you believe the focus is on prosecution by the United States government?

Peter Larson: Certainly I find problems with the lack of prosecution in certain financial areas, since my convictions were based on essentially not filling out some forms. My federal prison experience wasn’t all bad, I got to learn things there that were helpful to me, I just never understood the logic behind it. Todd, you had re-creations in the film. How do you decide what re-creations to do, based on a visual acuity that you want for the film? Did you go back after seeing a cut and decide that more re-creations would make the story better visually?

Miller: When I first pitched the film it was going to use first person interviews, but we were rarely going to see them on film. I intended to go back and use re-creations on all the interviews, and macro-shots of descriptive elements like fog rolling in on the discovery site. We wanted to make a more artistic piece, but once we started our subjects started handing us more and more archival footage that I never knew existed. Once I started getting that, we combined it all. Who tipped off the feds regarding the initial raid on your business, which confiscated Sue? What factors of that tip caused the large numbers of federal agents and legal prosecutors in this case?

Larson: We don’t know exactly where that came from, whether it was the owner of the lands Maurice Williams or the Indian tribe making the complaint or even a fellow scientist. What we do know is that the U.S. Attorney Kevin Schieffer made a big show of the confiscation, and it was a publicity stunt.

Miller: I don’t think that matters, because it was Schieffer making the decision to move ahead with the raid to begin with, based on the filtering of what information he had.

Dinosaur 13
The T-Rex Named Sue is ‘Dinosaur 13’
Photo credit: Lionsgate Todd, time has an interesting place in your film. You are cognizant of time in association with Sue’s incarceration, the period of the jury deliberation and finally the timing of getting a record auction price for the bones? What were you trying to communicate with your timeline?

Miller: The story is told over a ten-year period, and it was very complex. It was almost hard to digest, and [to] keep it straight. The bones of Sue are on one journey and Peter is now on his own divergent path. In going back and forth, I just wanted to keep it in perspective. Somebody mentioned at a screening that the music had a particular time signature in certain parts of the film, and asked if that was intentional. Of course Matt Larson – the composer of the film – and I said ‘Yes’ [laughs]. Peter, there is an old adage, credited to the film ‘All the President’s Men,’ in which we all should ‘follow the money.’ Since you are in the business of selling fossils, how did your enterprise meld with enterprises that eventually had Walt Disney, McDonald’s and seven million bucks at an auction at Sotheby’s?

Larson: When Kevin Schieffer saw Sue, he told the press we had to save her, because our Institute was going to sell it to the highest bidder. Then, of course, when all the court battles were done, the federal government put her up for auction on behalf of the land trust owner, Maurice Williams. It was ironic, and further it was ironic that they accused us of ‘making money for our work,’ and then McDonald’s and Walt Disney bought it, and they certainly make money for their work. Todd, In the old cliché of truth being stranger than fiction, what is the strangest element to this story, that you think would never be believed if it was told as fiction?

Miller: Definitely when Peter was checking into the federal prison, and the prison guard showing him the reason for incarceration – ‘failure to fill out forms.’ That was the craziest thing, the man did 24 months based on a clerical error. What do you think this situation says for the character of Maurice Williams, who took your initial payment, and then sued you for more? Did he ever give back that initial payment?

Larson: No he didn’t. He wasn’t a nice person.

Miller: Even worst than that, when Peter was out of jail in his probation period, he was in a phone booth while on another dig. Maurice Williams spies him, and rides up in his pickup truck – and this was after he’d got the 7.6 million dollars from Sue’s auction – gets out of the truck, goes up to Peter and sucker punches him, and threatened his life. That tells you who Maurice Williams is. What are both of your perspectives on the antiquities of the earth? Since man made up the concept of land ownership, who are we beholden to when it comes to that ownership, especially in the case of fossils?

Larson: Wherever we have sedimentary rocks, we have fossils. Those fossils are washing them out all the time, and being destroyed by the same elements that are exposing them. We have a responsibility to save as much of that as possible, and it doesn’t have to be a certified doctor of Paleontology to do this. We have a responsibility to make sure that these fossils end up in a place where scientists and the public have access to them. There are a large majority of fossils that are in private ownership, but there are truly are items that belong in a museum, and Sue was one of them.

Miller: What I would add to that is sentiments I’ve heard from other scientists – there were no boundaries in the days of the dinosaurs. So the idea of keeping things in particular states or particular countries is a dated concept.

Larson: And museums not only have an obligation to preserve things as best they can, but I believe they have an obligation to disperse that knowledge around the world. The fossils of this planet belong to everyone on this planet, and it helps us to understand that we live in a very special place. And if the end of dinosaurs are any indication, we have to take care of this special place we live in.

“Dinosaur 13” will release in theaters – including Chicago – and through Video-On-Demand on August 15th. See local listings for theaters and show times, plus television providers for VOD channels. Featured interviews include Peter Larson, Susan Hendrickson and Kristin Donnan Standard. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller. Rated “PG senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2014 Patrick McDonald,

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