HBO's Murder on Middle Beach filmmaker on how making the docuseries about his mom's death saved his life
The docuseries delves into the unsolved murder of Barbara Beach Hamburg, a decade after the crime rocked the town of Madison, Connecticut.
When Madison Hamburg was 11 years old, his parents Jeffrey and Barbara Hamburg bought him a Sony Handycam. The gift arrived a day after they told Madison they were getting a divorce. Although his parents didn’t know it at the time, that camcorder would change Madison’s life forever.
The budding filmmaker makes his debut on HBO with Murder on Middle Beach, a docuseries that untangles the mystery behind his mom’s murder, which remains unsolved to his day. But Madison hopes viewers can look beyond the surface and see that this story is more than a whodunit. While searching for answers about her life and her death, he ended up discovering himself.
"I don't say this in the documentary... I was a drug addict when my mom died," Madison tells EW. "First, I ran from accepting a world without her and then, I hit rock bottom. But, I got sober. I think once we started asking questions in 2013, I was driven by understanding who my mom was on a human level not just as the superhero that I saw while I was growing up. I wanted to know who Barbara was. I was sort of addicted to that because I was grieving someone I thought I knew and there was this discovery process of someone that was hidden from me for whatever reasons."
Barbara was found bludgeoned and stabbed to death on March 3, 2010 outside her Connecticut home at the age of 48. Her body was found underneath outdoor furniture cushions by her sister Conway Beach and Madison's younger sister Ali. On the day Barbara died, she was due to face Jeffrey in court over large sums of money he allegedly owed in back alimony and child support payments.
"I didn't have a relationship with my dad when my mom died," he explains." And when I came back to school [after her death] I was very much like an orphan. So, friends, family members, bosses at the coffee shop I worked at, became like surrogate parents or family members. Those people stuck by me and reminded me during moments of weakness why we’re all doing this — to find justice for my mom."
Though Jeffrey was a suspect in Barbara's demise, he's never been charged in connection to the crime. In fact, he wouldn't even meet with police as part of the investigation. Desperately needing answers, Madison secretly recorded his father for the doc.
"I was aware of the consent laws in the states that I spoke to my father in. It was a really tough decision for me," Madison says. "I felt that my dad's biggest complaint about my mom's case was that he was the only person of interest publicly. I felt that the inclusion of his voice in my series would help balance that out and maybe change the narrative. Him not speaking to the police was an act of self-preservation, but I’m not the police. I was offering him a unique opportunity but he didn’t take it. There’s some ethical ambiguity there. I did feel that without his voice the absence would be felt. I didn’t hold back in regards to anyone else and I felt the need to take the same approach to my dad.”
Madison admits his dad did not screen Murder on Middle Beach ahead of its Sunday premiere but he is now aware their conversations were recorded. The relationship is in limbo at present, though he hopes it can be repaired in the future.
“I’ve bent over backward to give him the opportunity to answer those questions," he says of his father. "And it’s really difficult to do because there’s a couple of different things going on there. I want a dad. My mom always wanted me to have a relationship with my dad. I don't know what he was involved in, I can't get into too many details about it. But the other aspect is, I look in the mirror and I see my mom and I see my dad. I have his genetics. Coming to understand that part of my identity has been really, really difficult, but I've fought like hell.”
He adds, "My hope is that viewers see the documentary less as a whodunit and more as a journey to self-discovery. This story is about identity and me finding what I’m most passionate about which is documentary filmmaking. But it also helped me find empathy for family and understanding who my mom really was. I now understand my mom, my aunt, and my sister on a different level and have grown to appreciate the potential for empathy for stories that are not exactly like mine."