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From the Jaws of Victory: The Battle Over The World’s Largest Tyrannosaurus Rex

Lionsgate documentary Dinosaur 13 is the cautionary tale of the world’s greatest Tyrannosaurus Rex discovery and the forces that wrested her away from the paleontologists who found her.

From the Jaws of Victory: The Battle Over The World’s Largest Tyrannosaurus Rex
[Images courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures]

In the summer of 1990, a group of young commercial fossil hunters lead by paleontologist Peter Larson discovered the most complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found.

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They brought it back to their company, the Black Hills Institute, with the hope of showcasing the T-Rex, dubbed Sue, in its museum and putting their small South Dakota town of Hill City on the paleontological map.

Their victory was shortlived. Two years into the painstaking process of cleaning and separating the bones, the FBI seized their company assets. Sue’s growing fame prompted the landowner where she was discovered to reverse his handshake deal with the fossil hunters and sue for ownership–throwing the scientists into a decade-long battle with overzealous federal prosecutors, Native American tribes over vague land boundaries, and ugly divisions between academic and commercial paleontologists. At stake was not only Sue’s ownership, but looming jail time.

Peter Larson (in blue), Susan Hendrickson (for whom Sue is named), and excavation team members in 1990.Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

The story fascinated Brooklyn filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller, who veered from a more sweeping project on paleontology to focus on Larson and Sue. The result is the award-winning Lionsgate/CNN Films documentary–Dinosaur 13 (so-named for Sue being the 13th T-Rex discovered), which rolls out theatrically and on demand beginning August 15 and will air on CNN in November.

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Based on the 2004 book Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, The Dinosaur That Changed Science, The Law and My Life by Larson and Kristin Donnan, Miller–as producer, director, and editor–culled more than 300 hours of previously unseen footage, interviews with Larson and his team, and the politicians and legal teams defending both sides.

The film resonates beyond a disturbing reverse David and Goliath tale. It’s a microcosm of the powerless everyman against Big Business and Big Government, those forces prevailing at the expense of science and entrepreneurship, vague and arbitrary laws governing that science, and the political and jealousy-driven system in which businesses and museums fund scientific endeavors.

“The federal judge wielded a lot of power and wasn’t going to let them get off scot-free, despite a lot of dissenting decrees from lower courts whose decisions he overturned,” says Miller. “There was an opportunistic acting U.S. attorney with political aspirations to run for the Senate. When you have decision makers seeking power, and looking out for themselves instead of the people who put them in those positions, this is what happens.

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“Larson runs the largest independent fossil company in the world today,” he adds. “What he was doing with his business before and after this ordeal is a case study in how to survive during adversity by going in a different direction. For a long time, their business was supplying research specimens to museums, which only have limited time and budgets for excavations. After the saga, they kept their heads above water by perfecting their bone casting process and providing replicas.”

(L-R) Cinematographer Tom Petersen, paleontologist/co-author Peter Larson, filmmaker Todd Miller, co-author Kristin Donnan, and music composer Matt Morton at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s opening night.Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Miller cashed out his 401K to make the film with cinematographer Tom Peterson and music composer Matt Morton through Miller’s Statement Pictures. “We were making a larger wrenching film about paleontology, and Sue was one little part,” says Miller. “I read Rex Appeal on the road to Hill City. It said everything I wanted to say on a micro level. I was amazed it hadn’t been made into film yet. Turns out he’d turned down numerous offers from Hollywood. By the end of the interview, I was so impressed with Peter, that I made him an offer to option the book.

“He did the deal on a handshake.”

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About the author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to Fast Company, where she covers space science and autonomous vehicles. Karlin has reported for The New York Times, NPR, Air & Space, Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, and Wired, among other outlets, from such locations as the Arctic and Antarctica, Israel/West Bank, and Southeast Asia

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