A juicy new documentary about the life and public battles of late real estate mogul Leona Helmsley is currently in production, Variety learned exclusively. The film will contain never-before-seen recordings of Helmsley and her arch-rival Donald Trump, as well as “irrefutable” evidence that will challenge the tax evasion case brought against her by Rudy Giuliani in 1988.
Helmsley was an icon of the “greed is good” era, owner of luxury hotels and condominiums who left behind a $5 billion estate (which included a $12 million trust fund for his dog, a Maltese). Dubbed the ‘Queen of Nasty’ by New York tabloids for her sour tongue and regal air, she was a bitter rival to Trump – who once called her a ‘shame on the industry and a disgrace on the government’. humanity in general”. Of Trump, Helmsley reportedly once said, “I wouldn’t trust him if his tongue was notarized.”
Trump has notoriously attempted to seize the crown jewel of Helmsley’s real estate portfolio, the Empire State Building.
Independent studio Gunpowder & Sky has onboarded the project from Filmbank’s Keith Robert Patterson (“All About Ann” from HBO), who will direct and executive produce. Former Wavelength head of development Serena Turner and Emil Pinnock are also producers. The trio also opted for Mitchell Pacelle’s book “Empire: A Tale of Obsession, Betrayal and the Battle for an American Icon,” for a scripted adaptation which Patterson is also writing and producing. Joanna Zwickel, senior vice president of feature documentaries and series, oversees Gunpowder & Sky.
The project will explore Helmsley’s journey from “New York society belle to overnight pariah”, the filmmakers said, after she was charged with tax evasion. The case was sparked after allegations that she and husband Harry used millions from their business to renovate their Greenwich, Connecticut mansion.
“From day one, Leona Helmsley alleged that she and her husband Harry had been framed and her charges dropped. It took 30 years to uncover the exclusive records, evidence and involvement of those willing to come to her defense,” said director Patterson. “And now, thanks to newly unearthed exclusive audio recordings and interviews, Leona will finally be able to mount a real defense.”
Zwickel said Helmsley was “one of the first public figures to be undone – she and her husband Harry were New York royalty and literally overnight she became known as ‘Queen of Mean”. We are thrilled to be associated with Filmbank, Keith Robert Patterson and Serena Turner on this film which will finally reveal whether Leona was mean, a misunderstood genius, falsely maligned by Donald and the justice system – or all of the above. This doc will expose everything.
Filmbank, a hardcore content company, is currently developing a television series based on the hit video game “The 7th Guest”. Helmsley’s scripted project will also be produced by Pinnock and Jenna Sarkin of Entertainment 360.
Gunpowder & Sky targets larger-than-life stories about groundbreaking music and musicians, pop culture, issues and personalities. Most recently, they produced the acclaimed Sheryl Crow documentary “Sheryl”, which premiered on Showtime and screened at SXSW. The company has two new music documentaries that chronicle the worlds of ’80s soft rock and hair metal that will debut later this year on Paramount+. Other recent projects include “Last Exit: Space,” written and directed by Rudolph Herzog and produced and narrated by Werner Herzog for discovery+
Read on for a Q&A with Patterson:
What about Leona’s story that seems relevant?
Recently, everyone has questioned the legal justice system. We have very good evidence that Leona was framed, and if it can happen to a billionaire, it can happen to anyone. She alleged her case was rushed by SDNY prosecutor Rudy Giuliani for nefarious reasons.
How do the documentary subjects and close to Helmsley or of the time shed light on it?
I think the recent turmoil and polarization in the media highlights stories that need to be revisited over time. Leona had few friends as most left her dry when she was “cancelled” by the New York press. We have his few friends involved in our project and what they know is telling.
Did you have any preconceptions about Leona that were reversed after making the film?
We got an insider tip on Leona’s pursuit. Then I found out that the “Leona is a bitch” narrative was started by none other than Donald Trump, when he was competing against her and Harry. This immediately intrigued me. When we started to cut corners on this 1989 tale, we were shocked — I mean, jaw to the ground — by what we discovered. We have unprecedented access to those who are close to what happened and want to set the record straight to be on the right side of history. We can’t say the same, but you will be shocked. I promise. It’s “The Jinx” level stuff.