TV

HBO’s ‘Murder On Middle Beach’ Director Tells Us About His Decade-Long Search For His Mother’s Killer

On March 3, 2010, Madison Hamburg’s life changed forever. His mother, Barbara, had been brutally murdered outside her Connecticut home. Law enforcement first suspected the crime to be one of passion in what inexplicably became a cold case. Madison, who at the time was a college sophomore, began to investigate his mom’s death, at first only intending to use his camera footage for a documentary class team project. Yet as he told me during a phone call, the project grew from a planned short to encompass something so massive this his professor “basically promised that he’d give me an ‘A’ if I promised that I’d never stop working on it.” Well, Madison kept his word, which led to more years of interviews and countless hours of footage. This has resulted in his directorial debut in what’s now an HBO four-part docuseries, Murder At Middle Beach.

I’ve watched the entirety of this docuseries, and let’s just say that there are several twists that even Madison didn’t see coming. Talking with him about the project was quite an experience, too. And I mention this next part only for context on the gravity of the situation: on the day I spoke with Madison, I also interviewed a high-profile actor. We’re talking about a Golden Globe-and-BAFTA-winning gentleman who’s acted in dozens of successful movies. After the day was said and done, I realized that, strangely, I was actually more nervous about interviewing Madison Hamburg than the A-list actor.

It felt daunting to speak with the young filmmaker who may have actually ended up interviewing his mother’s killer. He uncovered and dove into risky situations during his search for the truth. He turned over stones that a lot of us probably couldn’t stomach. It’s mind-boggling to fathom how Madison kept it together for the entirety of this project. And to this date, Barbara Hamburg’s murder remains unsolved. Did it have something to do with her estranged husband, whose financial dealings were highly suspect, or can the murder be tied to a pyramid scheme (known as the “Gifting Tables”) for which multiple fellow participants were convicted in a Ponzi scheme after Barbara’s death?

A lot of what transpires in this docuseries feels surreal, along with being heartbreaking, but Madison rolled camera on all of it. He also persisted in bringing his mother’s story to audiences, finally finding a breakthrough a connection with the late-Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia screenwriter and longtime collaborator, Ron Nyswaner, who came on board as an executive producer. That led to Nyswaner telling Madison (as he related to me), “Jonathan Demme changed my life in one phone call, and I’m gonna try to do the same for you.” Madison then relocated to L.A., where he edited the project and eventually partnered with Jigsaw Productions before landing a deal with HBO.

Altogether, Murder On Middle Beach is Madison’s attempt to solve the mystery of his mother’s death while absolving multiple people that he loves and also hoping to repair his fractured family. It’s a heck of a watch that will keep you guessing until the end and beyond. Ahead of Sunday night’s HBO premiere, Madison was gracious enough to tell us how it all came together (and how he kept it together).

HBO

After watching you interview so many people for this docuseries, it feels odd to be asking you the questions. Is it strange for you, too?

I think that in order to create the opportunities in order to make this, I’ve answered questions for a while now, so it’s not too weird for me. I think I have a different context, obviously, being the one who was asking questions.

HBO’s been beefing up their true-crime library. How did you pitch your specific project?

Well, what was really hard was the angle. Because with true crime, the knee-jerk idea is how “big was the story?” and “how brutal was the murder?” and what’s the angle here? But we were really pitching a story of identity and telling a story through the victim and family’s perspective, so it was a really hard thing to pitch, and that’s kind-of outside the conventions of true crime. And I’m so grateful that Lisa Heller, who we pitched to at HBO, saw that potential. The rest is sort-of history.

A lot of this project became about learning who your mother is, and about getting to know your father. Was there anything in particular that surprised you most?

Thank you for recognizing that. I think that when I started this, I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but what surprised me the most was that my mom was a… human being and a person.

Yeah, as kids, we tend to view our parents as almost mythological creatures, if that makes sense.

Yeah. And when she died. I didn’t know the stressors that she was protecting me from, and the life that she had and kind-of the greyness of her morality. So, I didn’t really know Barbara. The film becomes a lot about discovering who she was and that influencing my own identity. So, the biggest thing that surprised me, which sounds kind of silly [laughs], is that my mom was not just “Mom.” She was a person.

You made some really gutsy moves with hidden recording devices over the years. Were you ever afraid of getting busted by a subject?

Uhhhh, yes! But after eight years, you kind-of forget it’s there. It’s tough. You wanna be nonchalant about it but also need to have the questions ready and be very strategic. I got better at it over the years and learned the legalities of it, a lot more clearly over the years, but yeah, I think that one thing that surprised me is that there are certain people who just kind-of like put up with the really sharper, intense questions that I was asking and were not aware that I was recording. And they never thought to ask that, if I was. Part of me always felt like they may have been recording themselves or, I don’t know! It’s tough. That was a really tough thing… I always looked at those ethical decisions like it was for the greater good. And there’s a lot of deciding whether or not things are worth it.

On a larger scale, there’s a point near the end when you were questioning whether what you were uncovering would endanger your life. Was there ever a point when you really thought you should be looking over your shoulder?

Yeah, the making of the documentary was like an 8-year double life that I was living. I didn’t tell a lot of my friends about it. A lot of people that I worked with didn’t even know what had happened to my mom, so digging into leads in areas that could have led to my mom’s death is scary. If you’re a serial-killer murderer or a sociopath murderer, usually a murder is a solution to a problem done by people who are in desperate situations. And now that it’s public, I feel a little less scared for my own safety because I don’t know that coming after me would necessarily solve a problem anymore.

One of the wilder aspects of this project is that there’s a decent chance that you actually interviewed the person who murdered your mother. How conscious were you of that possibility?

I’ve been pretty careful not to judge any theories or just not say, “I think this person could have done it.” But of course that ran through my head, and that’s part of what I set out to alleviate, those underlying distrusts, you know, not being able to trust family members and people who should be part of my family structure and support system, completely 100%. And trying to exonerate them, so I can have some semblance of normal family connection.

To this date, the case remains unsolved, but you received a late-breaking records dump following a successful Freedom Of Information Act request. You’re still digging through those files, but are you seeing any hope for a resolution?

I’m a friend and member of Survivors of Homicide, which is an amazing support group in Connecticut for people who have loved ones who have been murdered. When you’re going through anything like this, it’s extremely difficult for family because the transparency with law enforcement in Connecticut is really… opague. It’s easy to lose that trust, but as a family member who’s going after “who the murderer is,” it sometimes can be like a fool’s errand, but what the more immediate challenge that you can face is taking it up with the process, and making sure that was done correctly. Especially nowadays, it’s very hard to get away with murder, so with long-term cold cases and unresolved murders, more likely than not, something went wrong in the process. And as a family member, being privy to that is extremely gratifying.

With the Unsolved Mysteries revival leading to tips, one can only hope that this series will do the same.

Yes, and also, at least for me, since I’ve investigated this for so long, [the new records] make my work… it provides a level of transparency. I guess I never had any finality to my mom’s death. I came home and didn’t see her. Nobody told me any details of the crime, and so it was like a movie where all of a sudden, my mom’s dead, and everyone’s just saying it to me, but nobody’s telling me how. I didn’t have that sense of finality, and I think that going through the steps and also seeing some of what the police were doing, it makes my world a little clearer. That existential sort-of crisis has started to fade away.

We’re out of time, Madison. I hope that law enforcement finally ends up moving on this case, for you and for your family.

Thank you so much. I really hope so, too.

HBO’s ‘Murder On Middle Beach’ debuts on November 15 at 10:00pm EST.

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