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Filmmaker highlights obsessive, weird world of duck stamp artists

by Kevin Ferguson | Off-Ramp®

A production still from "The Million Dollar Duck" Courtesy Lionsgate

Have you heard of the Federal Duck Stamp? It’s a $25 stamp sold by the United States Department of the Interior to duck hunters and collectors all over the country.

Each year, there’s a different illustration on the stamp, usually a duck. The artwork is selected in a nationwide contest that anyone can enter, but only one can win. In the wildlife art community, there’s no higher honor.

The stamp is the subject of a new documentary, "The Million Dollar Duck," directed by Angeleno Brian Golden Davis. Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson talked with Davis about the new movie.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ul6NQ23x_Q8

Interview Highlights:

The Million Dollar Duck brings out a lot of people who are experts in their field, people who are completely obsessed with this field, too. And they make it their entire lives. Which makes sense, I guess, but I would never have thought of that.

And that's one of the things that really got me interested in the film. A cartoonist named Ding Darling in 1934 had this idea to make a revenue stamp that would generate money to create the national wildlife refuges. Then somewhere along the way, it's like, "Hey why don't we have an open contest just to get the design of a duck on the stamp each year?"

That just sort of snowballed into this weird subculture where people dedicate their whole lives painting every year for 30 years, 40 years, 50 years... just to win and just to get their duck on that stamp.

You live in the L.A. area. You went to USC film school. All of this stuff happens in the Midwest. And a lot of the main characters in your documentary are from the Midwest. How did you find out about these people?

I grew up in Virginia. It's an odd place for ducks because it's by the Blue Ridge Mountains — there's not a lot of ducks there. My friend's stepdad was a wildlife artist. And one day I was asking him about that and it was like, "Actually, he painted a duck. It got on a stamp. And now our family is set for life!"

I just remembered it so clearly — that there is this mythical duck stamp out there, and that if an artist won the contest, it would change your life overnight.

And I actually heard about it on the radio — on KPCC I believe — we heard an interview with an author talking about a nonfiction book that you read about the contest. I read that book and it just triggered that memory and I was off to the races with the film.

The only other point of reference people might have for the Federal Duck Stamp contest is the series of scenes in Fargo with Frances McDormand's husband, Norm Gunderson:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj1CqBBMT54

Yeah, I think most people's reference for this, when you mention the Federal Duck Stamp, most of the time people mention "Fargo." But what's funny about that film is that, they actually mentioned the Hautman brothers. They say like, "Oh, the Hautman brothers are entering this year, I'm not going to have a chance."

The Hautman brothers are actually these three brothers from Minnesota.

Yeah, they're just like the Yankees of the Federal Duck Stamp.

They actually grew up right beside the Coen brothers. So the Coen brothers' mom would be like "Oh, my boys just won an Oscar," and then the Hautman brothers' mom would be like, "Oh, well my boys just won another duck stamp!"

They actually used the Hautman brothers' painting supplies and easels and stuff like that in the film.

Any favorite characters?

It's kind of weird, because when I first started I was, like, just mentally asking myself: "Am I really going to invest like a couple of years of my life to doing a story about people who paint ducks competitively?"

But the other thing was Rob McBroom. For those who don't know about the contest, it's really been dominated by realism. The ducks are very anatomically accurate.

And then Rob McBroom is this guy who paints abstract ducks. He uses, like, a Chevy logo as the duck's bill. You have to kind of see his work, but it's completely in the opposite direction of realism.

He's kind of a great antagonist to that crowd.

 Yeah, and that was one of the funny things, because I knew that a lot of the people that take that kind of stuff really seriously are spending two to three months of work and they're painting each year to get that perfectly detailed feather and stuff. And when they see this abstract painting, it just — for lack of a better word — riles their feathers up.

It's also a story of a federal program that not a lot of people are aware of that puts a lot of work into conservation.

You don't really see a lot of good stories about the government these days. The Federal Duck Stamp program is so small, it's really run by two or three people. And it generates a massive amount of funding for national wildlife refuges. You kind of get this thing where the Republicans like it, the Democrats like it, the Libertarians like it — it's just like this thing that they sort of, everyone gets behind. So it's kind of cool to see. 

"The Million Dollar Duck" comes out August 9 — it'll be available on Amazon, iTunes, and through local cable providers.

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