Madison Hamburg began working on a documentary about his mother’s life and murder when he was still in film school in 2013, but as he was doing so, he did not tell anyone outside of the crew he was working with and the family members he was interviewing for the piece what he was doing. Living a self-described “double life,” Hamburg says, led him to feeling “fragmented as a person,” and now that the result of that multi-year project is finally being shared with the world he is hoping for the “closure to feel whole again.”
The road has not been easy for Hamburg, though. As he documents in the four-part “Murder on Middle Beach” docuseries, debuting Nov. 15 on HBO, he was a teenager when his mother, Barbara Beach Hamburg, was murdered in 2010. He was also dealing with a drug addiction, for which he went to rehab later that year. When he returned to school he didn’t tell anybody there about what had happened to his mother because of “shame” and “connotations around what that meant,” he tells Variety. “I didn’t want it to define me.”
Years later, with the case still unsolved and after members of his extended family have raised suspicions about each other’s involvement in the crime, Hamburg has taken all of the emotion and his unanswered questions and packaged them into a potentially career-defining docuseries, his first long-form project as a filmmaker.
“The potential that this story had for me was to learn more about my mom,” he says, adding that a specific storytelling goal of his was to “subvert the exploitive nature of shock and awe that, as a family member, I can honestly say is destructive.”
Hamburg is in a truly unique position as a filmmaker with “Murder on Middle Beach” in that he has a direct, personal connection to not only the central character in the story, his mother, but also every individual person interviewed, whether it’s his younger sister, his maternal aunt, his father or members of the police force in Connecticut who sometimes claim the case is cold and sometimes claim they just got a new lead. While he admits this helped him get the family interviews because “we had this common goal of wanting to understand why it happened,” he also acknowledges the experience caused him to have a bit of a double life while filming, as well.
“There’s that dual role that I have as a filmmaker and a family member and they’re not always in concert with each other. I wanted to maintain the least amount of bias as I could from the investigative perspective but I was very protective over maintaining the arcs,” he explains. “Even in just casual conversation I was never in a situation where I would ask a family member point-blank if they had anything to do with the murder. So in our first round of filming, I didn’t really cross that line that much, but in 2016 when I hd a grant through an alumni program I didn’t know where this would end up, but if this was my only chance to look the elephant and the eye and address it, I felt like if I didn’t take that opportunity — if I didn’t ask bluntly these really tough questions — than I never would have exonerated people I love and I never would have gotten past that.”
Asking those tough questions was hardly easy for Hamburg, who put himself in the docuseries, not only through archival family photos and home movies, but also through his interviews and even a visit to the home where his mother was killed.
“There was a certain point where I questioned whether my life was driving the documentary or the documentary was driving my life and that’s a really ethically ambiguous question because the two are in tandem and it’s just a unique byproduct of the situation,” he says. But, “we wanted the audience to be with me throughout the journey, rather than being told what the journey was.”
Hamburg shares that “Minding the Gap” influenced that storytelling approach. But there was also just certain footage he would not have been able to capture had he not been willing to put himself on-screen. He met with police officers in their station, for example, to talk about developments in the case, which he recorded “mostly for notes,” he says, but when they began interrogating him he also wanted to protect himself. They ended up asking to see his footage, believing there could be things his family would “let slip” to him that they would never say in front of officers.
“I think they wanted to solve my mom’s murder [but] they were overwhelmed with the potential for reasonable doubt,” he says. “I was pretty upset and frustrated that, as a family member, I was reaching out to them and telling them I had information and [did] not receive any response back. I think there’s a lack of transparency with law enforcement in Connecticut, [but] I think that’s changing and I’m still hopeful about where I’m at now with the police. They have some motivation to reactivate things with the case.”
Additionally, his father Jeffrey Hamburg has refused to talk about his past with Barbara Hamburg, even in just a general way when Hamburg phrased questions as wanting to know more about his childhood. Since he still wanted a relationship with his son, the senior Hamburg would still meet with the filmmaker. (The younger Hamburg found ways to record those meetings and conversations and include them in the docuseries as well.)
“My mom always wanted me to have a relationship with my dad. I think part of that pushed me to continue my relationship,” he says. “It’s really hard because it’s a relationship in limbo. Whether or not he had anything to do with the murder, we have stuff that we have to work out [as] father and son that I’m desperately trying to do. I’m ready to accept him if he says he made mistakes, but I don’t think he’s ready to admit that.”
With “Murder on Middle Beach,” Hamburg takes his audience through pieces of his parents’ relationship, including their divorce. He covers how his father was a person of interest in the murder, potentially because of the money he owed her in child support. He also doesn’t shy away from some other concerning family behavior, namely a pyramid scheme in which his mother and aunt were involved.
Hamburg knows that, due to the salacious nature of traditional true crime projects, there will be some audience members “casting aspersions” on his family as they watch the story unfold. In some moments while making the docuseries, he shares, he felt the “pendulum swinging from over-investigative and wanting answers to, ‘What have I done? I’m ruining relationships. I need to fix this.’ Allowing that to become a part of the storyline was an important aspect” of the overall process.
Still, now, more than a decade after his mother was taken from him, Hamburg says he feels “prepared” to share their story with the world. He made sure to set up “family screenings” so those involved in the docuseries could see it before the world does, and he has a team devoted to a special tip line “for memories about my mom and any details that people remember from the time.”
With “Murder on Middle Beach,” Hamburg set about “learning who my mom was and finding my own identity through it,” he says. In doing so, he now looks at his experience with this first long-form project as a jumping off point for how he wants to continue his career.
“I hope to continue making vérité and character-driven documentaries and subverting expectations and conventions from a very human level. To me, that has the greatest impact for empathy and change,” he says. “There is so much potential to tell untold stories that are stranger than fiction and larger than life. I would be humbled to continue to try and do those stories justice.”
“Murder on Middle Beach” premieres Nov. 15 at 10 p.m. on HBO.