Todd Douglas Miller’s “Dinosaur 13” chronicles the discovery of the largest and most intact Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in history. When the team from the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota unearthed “Sue,” as she would later be named, they didn’t know that they’d kicked off a 10-year battle with the U.S. government, powerful museums, Native American tribes and competing paleontologists. “Dinosaur 13” comes out in limited theatrical release, On Demand and digital HD today, August 15.
Miller has traveled a long and difficult road to his first documentary feature. He was always interested in making movies, but didn’t have a lot of options growing up — as he couldn’t afford to attend on of the big name film schools, he instead went to a trade school in Michigan where he learned about cameras, film equipment and producing.
Miller was initially working on a more artistic film about paleontology and science in general, when he began reading Peter Larson and Kristen Donnan’s book “Rex Appeal” on a cross-country road trip visiting museums. “It got to the pointwhere I didn’t want to do anything but just read the book,” said Miller. He met with Larson in South Dakota and the rest is 65 million year old history. Miller sat down with Indiewire to tell us about his career beginnings and the inspiration for “Dinosaur 13.”
There was never a doubt that I could do anything else. I guess for any skill set I might have lacked, I kind of made up for it in hard work and just had a goal to do things. For me that was making a feature-length film and trying to get it into theaters. It took me a good 17 years.
Everybody wants to be a director. So I just ended up producing everybody’s projects and shooting everybody’s projects. I worked with people who had similar interests that I do. We all were these misfits toys that didn’t have either the means or the will to go to the bigger film schools. So this was a gang that got together and shot all the time.
When I first saw “Bicycle Thieves” and some of those really great Italian neorealist films that were coming out after World War II, those were just amazing. I was highly influenced by the mentors who showed me those films.
I really wanted “Dinosaur 13” to have a kind of thriller feel to it. So we very much based it on films like the great ’70s conspiracy thriller films like Alan Pakula’s Paranoia Trilogy of “Klute,” “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men.” That kind of pacing, and utilizing music to drive narrative, was very much deliberate based on being a lover of films.
I would love to just work with Peter [Larson] for the rest of my life. He’s a dream subject and there are so many exciting things happening in dinosaur research with growth, behavior and understanding. It’s been an honor and pleasure to not only work with him, but all the great paleontologists around the world that help us learn where we come from and where we are going.
We have two other projects that are science-related. One deals with the space industry, an event that took place, and the other one is an underwater discovery that happened.
Every single dinosaur special in the last five years is terrible or absolutely appalling. To pair really bad CGI with a top tier scientist is ridiculous. These wonderful scientists are teaching us all this stuff and educating all of us. To show some crappy 3D animated, ridiculous thing that a film student would do is just appalling. Things like “Cosmos” and what Neil Degrass Tyson is doing are amazing. That is what it should be. Because it’s not only educating, but it’s entertaining.
Go on the digs. It doesn’t cost that much money. We packed our lunch and went out to the Badlands for three years and slept in the dirt. There are a ton of great production people that would do that, and there’s an audience for all that stuff too.