The fun and fascinating documentary The Million Dollar Duck (not to be confused with a 1971 Disney film of the same name) takes a look at the long-running annual competition to create the Federal Duck Stamp — a stamp purchased by hunters, with proceeds going toward procuring and preserving national wetlands (you may recall this contest as a subplot featured in the 1996 film Fargo). Ever since 1949, artists have vied to have their duck portrayals on the stamp in what has become known as “the Olympics of wildlife art.” While the claim of a million-dollar prize for the winner is just an urban legend, winners can successfully sell their artwork on its own or on merchandise for ultimately that amount or more based on their reputation of having won. The documentary, which took home the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival, follows six artists competing during the 2013 Duck Stamp competition, and it is a quirky lot, all with different reasons, passions and dreams for wanting to win. Reminiscent of a Christopher Guest “mockumentary” like Best in Show, The Million Dollar Duck is all real, and all the more funny, touching and heartwarming for it.
As with one of the fictional Guest films, The Million Dollar Duck is bolstered by the strength and sometimes quirkiness of its real-life characters, who do create some lovely art. The film, in part, is a tribute to the people who create wildlife art and are every bit as dedicated as other artists — perhaps more so, given how many hours they can spend in the wild trying to get glimpses of their unpredictable subjects.
Viewers will especially be likely to get a kick out of the rivalry between artists Rob McBroom and Tim Taylor. McBroom, quite a sight in his own right, given his tendency to dress in colorful, ’70s-ish outfits, is known throughout the contest ranks for making avant-garde entries into the Duck Stamp competition — entries that ignore all requirements for the contest and have no chance of winning, even though they are artistically interesting — much to the ongoing chagrin of Taylor, whose work McBroom has also taken to parodying. The exasperated Taylor has even gone so far as to buy up all of the possible domain names that McBroom might use to launch a website and display his unique duck art.
“I own robmcbroom.com, robmcbroom. net, robmcbroom.info. I own them all. So Rob doesn’t have a website,” Taylor chuckled to reporters at a recent press conference for the film.
Also at that press conference, I had the chance to talk with The Million Dollar Duck director Brian Golden Davis.
Where did the idea come from for a film about the Duck Stamp competition?
Brian Golden Davis: When I was growing up a friend of mine, his step dad was a wildlife artist. I was asking about them one day and he’s like, “Oh, my stepdad, he painted a duck. It got on a stamp and now we’re set for life.” When I heard that, it just stuck in my mind. I knew there was this contest that people painted ducks for and that if you won it, it would change your life.
Was it hard to find people to participate in the film?
As far as getting people to participate, pretty much everyone that I contacted wanted dot be a part of it. Because the way the duck stamp program is, they put so much of the money generated in the stamp onto the ground and sort of pride themselves on taking that money the stamp sells and protecting wildlife habitat. They don’t really spend a lot of money on marketing. I think when I came in I was like, “Hey, I want to do this film. It will be a way to show this culture to the rest of the world and sort of be like a cultural jump on …” I think everybody was kind of down to do that and really wanted to take part.
As far as selecting the people, it was just some people were kind of automatic. Then other people I kind of go through suggestions of meeting other people. It kind of just came about in this organic way where I’d go film with one person, they’d be like, “Oh, you should go film with this person.” I’d be like, “Well tell me about them.” I really just looked for people that had different background and a little bit that could be differentiated from everybody else. There’s a lot of people that enter the contest that are lifelong duck hunters, that are wildlife artists and I wanted to find people that had different stories from different parts of the country.
Was there a challenge in making this film both informative about what the Duck Stamp contest is, as well as entertaining?
A real big creative challenge [was depicting] the conservation side of the stamp. You can make a whole film on just either the conversation achievements of the stamp or what the stamp does on the conservation side, and you can tell that story and that history, but I really wanted to make a piece of entertainment that could maybe draw someone in that had not known about the conservation side or maybe didn’t think they wanted to know about the conservation side. That’s why I sort of constructed the story around the artists on this sort of personal journey, taking the passion they had for wildlife and trying to get their artwork on the stamp. That was a relatable storyline for anyone watching the film. Through that I kind of sprinkled conservation elements. I hope that people are attracted that want to see the film because it’s this weird subculture in America that not too many people have heard of. I hope they come to it with that and then when they walk away from the film that they’ve learned something about the conservation side.
Are you yourself a hunter or outdoors type of person?
I grew up doing Boy Scouts. There’s people in my family that hunt, but my father didn’t. It’s weird through doing this film I’ve gotten way more involved with birding, which I never thought I’d be intrigued by. Through doing this film and going out and observing birds and watching the ducks in the wild, there’s just a certain joy that comes from it. From doing the film, I’ve kind of gotten more involved in that. For the last 10 years, I’ve lived in L.A. and wasn’t doing as much wildlife stuff, so this film has been a really sort of good vehicle for me to get back out there and see some wildlife again.
The Million Dollar Duck premieres Sept. 14 at 9pm ET on Animal Planet.