As a paleontologist, Peter Larson is uniquely trained to uncover what’s beneath the surface. Yet after his team at the Black Hills Institute discovered the most complete skeleton of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the badlands of South Dakota in 1990, only to see that discovery become the basis for an ugly legal dispute over the land where the dinosaur nicknamed “Sue” had been excavated — leading the U.S. government to claim the fossils and subject Larson and his peers to criminal proceedings for the most superficial of infractions — you’d think there might be some things Larson would just be unable to look past. However, when asked today what’s stood out to him now his story is being shared in the new documentary “Dinosaur 13,” his answer may even be more remarkable than his biggest archeological find.
“Probably the most special thing is how awesome human beings can be,” says Larson, recently stopping by Los Angeles in the midst of the film’s promotional tour. “You can always look around and find somebody who’s worse off than you, so you have to keep your head up and watch for those really good things when something bad is happening, and you’ll find them. They’re there. They’re all around.”
These days, Larson has been able to get back to what he loves, talking up his work at the Black Hills Institute where he continues to collect dinosaurs for their museum in Hill City to the large crowds that have come out to see “Dinosaur 13” since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. While in L.A., he and director Todd Douglas Miller took the time (as well as Larson’s son Tim, in a brief cameo) to discuss how they channeled that passion into “Dinosaur 13,” which may focus on the twists and turns of the wild tug-of-war over “Sue” in the courts, but never loses sight of its main character’s sense of wonder about what’s in the field.
PL: It actually reminds me a bit of the time when we found Sue and Sue was seized, we had a lot of media attention at that point. This is a little more fast and furious here right now though.
How did the two of you meet and decide to make a film together?
Todd Miller: When I first met Peter and went to the community of Hill City, South Dakota, it was just a very unique experience and a unique place. It was the tail-end of a long trip that we had been making around the country, going to museums and other science centers. When I first met him, he exceeded my own personal expectations as far as just what we could out of it from an on-camera film standpoint, but then after I got to know him and see his humanity and what a great human being he is, it just made us want to really get the story out there to a large audience.
Peter Larson: I saw Todd as very much a kindred spirit. We both started our own companies. We have a passion for what we do. We both chose a profession based upon our passions, and Todd’s passion for filmmaking comes through in the movie, and people see how much I love dinosaurs too.
Peter, you study the past, so you see the value in it, but still, were you okay with revisiting what must’ve been a tough time in your life?
As a human being, I like to look forward for the next great new thing, but as a paleontologist, I also look backward all the time. We look backward at Sue’s life and looking at her heel injuries and things that give us snapshots of moments in her life, if we get enough of them, we can put them back together. This was a a very important period in my life and there were wonderful interactions with the people who helped us through these very difficult times that forms me as a human being, it’s really a pleasant experience for me, even though we have to relive some kind of not-so-fun times. It’s very cathartic and very healing, for the community of Hill City and Western South Dakota [as well] and we have Todd to thank for that.
Would Peter consult on some of the scenes regarding the paleontological aspects of the dig? The opening 15 minutes were impressive in how they lay everything out about the “Sue” dig in terms that would be understandable to anyone, which probably isn’t as easy as it seems.
PL: That was all Todd. He put that all together on his own. I got to see a rough cut three years into it.
TM: They’re amazing scientists that document all this stuff, so it makes our job very easy when they start handing over footage. Not only were you looking at just beautiful shots [within the footage] and still photography, but there were people on camera explaining what was happening. They would get in front of the camera and say, “This is what we’re doing now, what was happening here.” There would be times where I could call them up and go, “Okay, I’m looking at a close-up of what I think is maybe the back of a skull, but it looks like there’s large …” [And someone at Black Hills would say,] “Oh yeah, that’s the back of the skull going down.” “This is a timestamp that you had, August 14, 1990. Is that correct?” “Yes.” In that instance, it was just like fact-checking, making sure we got the archival material that we were given was inserted in the correct spot.
You’ve said you initially thought of doing reenactments to help tell the story, but the interviews proved strong enough to reconsider. Was there something specific that turned the tide?
TM: I knew that [the Black Hills Institute] had footage, but I didn’t know how good it was. I’d seen some stuff in some other media, just shots scattered here and there, but we initially pitched the idea of doing it more as a docudrama where we were going to do interviews, but then we were going to go back and reenact everything and hire actors. Peter’s son Tim was going to play Peter, and he ultimately did in some of the reenactments that we had, but very early on, they started handing over the footage, and once we saw the real thing, it was just a no-brainer to use that. I had this image of the day of the discovery with fog on the prairie, which is a little rare, and tents flapping in the wind, and close-up shots of all that stuff, giving more of this artistic impression of what it’s like to be out in the field, but that pales in comparison to the real thing.
I got the sense that while some of the team stayed together in South Dakota after the dig, many people pulled apart once the seizure happened. Has this project had a hand in bringing everybody back together?
PL: I think so. It’s hard to know the effect on everybody. There’s a lot of trauma that goes on. For instance, Terry West, an awesome human being and probably one of the finest fossil preparers that has ever lived, led the fight to get Sue back, which I couldn’t do because we were embroiled in accusations from the government, and he ended up being indicted also. All he’s doing is good for people, and here he gets accused of horrible things. His name was never mentioned in trial. Of course, this was all just a technique by the prosecutors that was used to win the case, but after we went through all this, he ended up leaving South Dakota, and I’m hoping that this is going to be a real healing experience for him too.
My younger brother, Neal, has also had a lot of stress in his life, and this has been one of the really hard things for him to deal with. I think that maybe this is going to be very healing for this wonderful group of people. We don’t get to see Susan [Hendrickson, who discovered “Sue”] very much anymore at all, and I’m hoping to watch the movie with Susan and Terry for the first time and see their reactions. I think it’s going to be really good for all of the people involved that really had a pretty hard time.
There are a few people from the government in the film, but considering how embarrassing a situation this is for them, was it difficult to pursue that perspective?
TM: Yeah, Judge Battey had the chief senior status at the time we started shooting and he allowed us to shoot in the courtroom, so the courtroom scenes are in fact where the actual criminal trial and custody dispute were held, but he has since retired and is living in Minnesota now. We tried to hold an interview with Kevin Shieffer, the acting US Attorney at the time, but he just never returned the phone call. I don’t think he returned anyone’s phone call ever with regards to media requests.
The prosecutors, on the other hand, were very gracious with their time. Robert Mandel, the lead prosecutor in the criminal trial, granted us numerous phone interviews and we constantly fact-checked with him about whether things synced up with the transcripts or appellate decisions or other testimony that was given or interviewees that we had on camera. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get on camera [himself] because he’s now a state judge, but he was wonderful. The same thing happened with some of the Tribal Council at the time during the initial claim by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Some of those guys now work for the Federal Government in the US Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They’ve granted us full access as far as phone interviews go, but couldn’t be on camera.
We also felt really fortunate that we got all the top academic paleontologists involved. Vincent Santucci [of the National Park Service] has been a wonderful supporter of the film, even though he was on the other side of things, and in fact, he and Peter have been working together on some recent legislations that has been a direct result from some of the things Peter has worked on before this saga happened in the mid ’80s.
Were there any particularly crazy twists in the story you were sad to see hit the cutting room floor?
TM: Tons. That’s why I always encourage people to read the book, “Rex Appeal,” because it has everything in there and more. You have to put yourself back in that time period where technology wasn’t as advanced as what it is now. [“Rex Appeal” co-author] Kristin Donnan was taking hand notes during the trial. She was sitting in the gallery taking notes because the transcripts couldn’t get processed enough.
PL: You couldn’t bring the tape recorder into the courtroom.
TM: She would sit every night after court and would go over all this stuff. Things like the ELMO overhead projector, this was the first time it got used in a courtroom in South Dakota. There was the custody hearing that happened before the criminal trial. There’s so much great testimony by not only commercial paleontologists but academic paleontologists, and it really put a spotlight on that debate about fossil collecting here in the United States and this small community that has far-reaching implications for us as a society and how we operate within ourselves and how we treat each other, but also how land management is dealt with here in the US. But we couldn’t put it in. The first cut was four hours long, so instead of a custody dispute, you have Sam Donaldson just giving a Cliff Notes version of what just transpired, unfortunately.
Have you actually shown it in the community of Hill City?
TM: When the film was acquired at Sundance by Lionsgate and CNN Films, we actually built into the agreement that it would be shown at the Black Hills Film Festival, which takes place in Hill City every year. A couple months after Sundance, it screened twice there and it was a very emotional, at least for me, [after] getting to know the people for three years, so I could only imagine what it was like for a lot of the people. Kids who were protesting, holding signs out front back in 1992, came out and here they are adults, and they really haven’t come to terms with it, so I would hope that it brought some sort of closure for people.
Your son Tim is sitting with us and if it’s not inappropriate, what was his reaction to this? He must’ve been young when this transpired.
Tim Larson: I was seven when it started — six when Sue was discovered, —but just that whole decade, was two-thirds of my life, so watching the film at Sundance was probably the most cathartic experience I’d ever had. Being able to let go of things — grudges I held against people I never knew for reasons I didn’t even know why — [they were] gone.
Has the publicity from the film resulted in more interest in Peter’s work at the Black Hills Institute?
PL: Certainly, there have been people more interested, and in fact, there’s something really cool that we’re working on right now. We’re in talks with The Field Museum [in Chicago] trying to bring part of Sue back to South Dakota, and so there’s a chance that we’re going to be able to get a cast of the skeleton of Sue, back in Hill City. Wouldn’t that be awesome? We’re exploring that right now and we’re all keeping our fingers crossed that this is going to happen.