As David and Goliath stories go, it’s a good one: A group of students from Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix — all of them undocumented immigrants — enters an underwater robotics competition in 2004 and wins, beating several top university teams, including a group from MIT.
“I heard the story and thought it was really epic,” says Boston-based producer-director Mary Mazzio.
Unfortunately for her, Warner Brothers also heard the story and already had a deal to tell it on the big screen. But, as often happens in Hollywood, the studio didn’t move quickly, and its option lapsed. Mazzio got right to work on a documentary, joining forces with Jeb Bush Jr., the son of the former Republican governor of Florida Jeb Bush.
“I wasn’t sure how that was going to work because I’m a Massachusetts Democrat,” says Mazzio, laughing. “But we met in Boston to talk about it, and I liked him very much. He’s really a sweetheart of a guy.”
“Underwater Dreams,” which the younger Bush executive produced, is now finished. It opened in Los Angeles and New York over the weekend and will air on MSNBC and Telemundo on Sunday. A Boston screening at the Museum of Science on Aug. 7 will be hosted by Governor Deval Patrick and congressman Joe Kennedy III, with a panel discussion afterward that will include Bush, VERTEX CEO Jeff Leiden, iRobot CEO Colin Angle, and the students and teachers from the film.
The 85-minute film tells the story of how a group of immigrant students built a robot in three days using PVC pipe, over-the-counter electronics, and a couple of tampons. Dubbed “Stinky” by its creators, the bot is able to record sonar pings and retrieve objects 50 feet below the water’s surface. The team’s total budget was $800, compared with $11,000 for the MIT team.
Mazzio says the film has fans on both sides of the political aisle.
“This improbable story really illustrates the business imperative to create the next generation of engineers, scientists, and mathemeticians,” she said.
“Underwater Dreams” is one of two movies about the precocious Carl Hayden High School kids. In January, Lionsgate will release “Spare Parts,” featuring George Lopez as the coach of the robotics team. The movie also stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Marisa Tomei.