Pop some popcorn and get your ducks in a row. The documentary “The Million Dollar Duck” wings its way to Animal Planet to unveil the real drama behind the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, which was a minor subplot in the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film “Fargo.”
The annual contest, which began in 1934 with the aim to raise money for wildlife conservation, pits artists from around the country in a duck-themed paint-off. After a panel of five judges weigh in, a winner is chosen, and with that victory comes prestige, bragging rights and the promise of financial reward.
Filmmaker Brian Golden Davis didn’t hear about the contest from “Fargo,” but from a friend and eventual winner Ron Louque. “I had a friend in high school whose dad had won the contest,” Davis told IndieWire in an interview. “We were talking about it and he said, ‘My stepdad painted a duck. It got on a stamp, and now we’re set for life.’ That phrase just stuck with me.”
Davis decided to revisit the subject many years later, after he had read Martin J. Smith’s 2013 book “Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.” And thus started a deep dive into the world of duck artistry that bore similarities to Christopher Guest’s mockumentary “Best in Show,” about dog show fanatics.
“I like the Christopher Guest films a lot, but I wouldn’t say they were a major influence,” Davis said. “It’s sort of like the native sense of humor of the subjects and of the contest. That’s one of the first lines in the film where this character says, ‘There’s just something funny about ducks.’ They’re really majestic birds, but they’re also they’re funny birds, and people have this weird association with them. When people dedicate their lives to painting ducks, it automatically evokes a quirky response. I think the film is a quirky film, but I think it’s quirky in the sense that it was already quirky — I just happened to film it.”
Check out what else Davis had to reveal about how quirky the Duck Stamp Contest is and how it’s stranger than any fiction that “Fargo” or “Best in Show” could dream up:
There Is No Monetary Prize
Despite the name of the film, the winner does not actually get a million dollar check. Instead, it refers to the potential amount of money the winner can earn from licensing their design and selling their other artwork, based on their newfound fame.
Christian Bruno/Animal Planet
“In the ‘80s, during the Ronald Regan era, the stamp was insanely popular,” Davis said. “There was a surgeon… from selling and licensing [his] art, that piece of artwork was making multi-millions in sales.
“Also, the prestige of winning, it carries over into all of your other artwork,” he added. “Once you become a Federal Duck Stamp winner, you’re going to get so much more patrons to your art that it kind of increases everything. If you go to any wildlife artist bio page, no matter what year they won, even if it’s in the ‘60s or ‘70s, the first line will be ‘a Federal Duck Stamp winner.’ It’s still the most important, biggest prize that there is in the wildlife art world.”
The Duck Stamp Dynasty Is Real
In “Fargo,” Marge’s husband Norm Gunderson (John Carroll Lynch) is upset that his mallard painting was beat out by the “Hautman’s blue-winged teal” in the Duck Stamp Contest. In real life, Robert, Jim and Joe Hautman are brothers who’ve won the contest 12 times between them. The Coen Brothers knew them personally and included their name and artwork in “Fargo.”
While the Hautmans have the most impressive record, they’re by no means the only family to paint ducks together. “It’s reached multiple generations,” Davis confirmed. “Because it started in 1934, some of those guys have kind of died off, so the second generation is kind of the Hautman brothers and Adam [Grimm]. The guy who’s won the most is Maynard Reece. He’s won five times — he’s in his 90s now.”
There’s a Gender Gap
Far fewer women enter the Duck Stamp Contest than men, and that shows with only three women having won the competition since its inception.
“Even though there’ve been very few female winners, I wanted to have female characters,” Davis said. He first chose Rebekah Nastav because she was a junior winner who had graduated to entering the adult contest.
“Dee Dee [Murry] kind of happened by accident,” he added. “I was filming Rebekah and she had a photo from Dee Dee from a previous contest, and I was like, ‘Who is that woman carrying her dog?’ Then I went back and researched her. Dee Dee’s also a really accomplished artist. She had got in the Top 20 before, in the Top 10.”
A Dog Almost Entered the Duck Stamp Contest
In researching Dee Dee Murry, Davis found out that her dog Hallie paints and has raised tens of thousands of dollars with her paintings. The filmmaker played with the idea of trying to enter Hallie into the Duck Stamp Contest for the doc.
“I was trying to convince [Dee Dee] to. I wish we would have now,” said Davis. “The entry fee was $125. Dee Dee joked about it too, ‘We’ve got to enter her just to see how she does.’” Watch a clip of Hallie painting below:
The Contest Is Biased Toward Photo-Realism
Want to create a Dali-esque duck stamp? Good luck with that. Although there are no mandates to paint duck stamps that are photo-realistic, the tradition favors realism over other styles. That’s not great news for Rob McBroom, an eccentric artist who prefers pop, impressionistic or abstract art.
“There’s no regulation that says that it should be a realism-based painting,” said Davis. “There are some that are more impressionistic that have won before. It’s just sort of been the trend in the last several years. The initial ones, if you go back in time, were done by engraving. They’re totally different from now. Rob doesn’t do realism-based art. That’s not him as an artist. I think Rob knows just as much about ducks as a lot of the other people entering. ”
Christian Bruno/Animal Planet
Duck Stamp Rivalries Exist
For contestant Tim Taylor, McBroom’s avant grade style is so offensive to him and the contest that he took to an artist’s website to critique McBroom’s work and called for him to be disqualified for violating certain rules. In retaliation, McBroom parodied Taylor’s work.
“He started making copies of my paintings and putting in pictures of myself and my ex-wife and all kinds of stuff,” Taylor said at the Television Critics Association press tour in August. “Like, every Facebook picture I put up, it was in the breast of the bird and, in the next one, all of these pictures of my ex wife that I didn’t even know anybody that he knew I had. Right? So I bought all of his domain names. I own robmcbroom.com, robmcbroom.net, robmcbroom.info. I own them all. So Rob doesn’t have a website.”
Check out the history of this fowl rivalry below:
You Can’t Send Mail With These Stamps
The stamps can’t be used for postage, which is a relief since each one costs $25, with proceeds going to wetlands conservation. Hunters are required to purchase a stamp in order to access hunting wetlands.
Davis explained, “You can use it at national wildlife refuges. Just show your duck stamp and you get free access. It’s bought by hunters, conservationists, birders and stamp collectors. What’s kind of cool about this is you have people you would not think be associated with stamp collecting, which are these hunter outdoorsmen, sportsmen-type guys. They’ll usually buy two stamps every year, one for their hunting license and another one for safekeeping.”
“The Million Dollar Duck” airs tonight at 9pm on Animal Planet. Davis’ next projects range from a couple horror flicks to documentaries about a bird illustrator and bugs.
Dee Dee Murry