While his claim might sound hyperbolic—or like a canny bit of marketing—it rings true: He logged thousands of miles and hundreds of hours to make the film, braving roach motels, crack highs, and homicidal pimps. Indeed, what Perlman captures in Lot Lizard is visceral and harrowing.
A police intervention program in Texas that works? Life on the road, they say, is lonely. Being in this truck can actually make you crazy. Jennifer, an ex-addict and single mother who recently quit prostitution, struggles to maintain her sobriety. With time and money running out, she weighs the economics of earning minimum wage at a McJob versus hustling on the lot again.
Guess which pays more? I recently spoke with Alexander Perlman about life on the lots, dodging the police, and what he left on the cutting room floor.
So this film was inspired by a truck stop prostitute you met while hitchhiking from New York to San Francisco? It was midday at a truck stop in Ohio, and I was sitting on a bench outside the travel center. A woman sat down and struck up a conversation.
I assumed she was a truck driver. We were in the middle of talking about her grandchildren when a truck driver who looked like Santa Claus walked by. What was it about the encounter that intrigued you? There was something about the set of her jaw—she had the strength of someone who had come to grips with a hard life. Also, it was clear that she was living outside the bounds of traditional society. On a much smaller scale I knew what that was like—I hit a rough patch in my teens and almost dropped out of high school.
How did you choose specific truck stops? The majority of filming was done over eight weeks. Dan Livingston, the field producer, looked for ride shares on Craigslist and eventually found one with Juliana Star Asis, his friend who was headed to Tucson, Arizona.
We did a lot of research online and spoke with truck drivers to find out where the sex workers were most prevalent. We put together a map indicating hotspots around the country. In the end, it came down to luck. A lot of the truck stops were clean as a whistle. When that happened, we hit the road. You focus on three women—Betty, Monica, and Jennifer. How did you describe the project to them?
We pitched the film as a feature documentary about truck stop sex workers. Unsurprisingly, most of them turned us down.
We had to go through a large volume of sex workers to find our cast. They had no outlets, but like everyone else had a need to express themselves and sort out their personal histories. Eventually we became their therapists—listening patiently, empathizing, asking questions, and being there for them to the best of our abilities.
By the end it was challenging to document rather than participate. My experience on the project helped me recognize that I would rather be a participant. Describe the different codes or shorthand that prostitutes use when advertising themselves on CB radios. Where do I begin? In the truck, they use the CB to advertise their services and arrange to meet with other truckers on the lot.
There can be several safe trucks on a large lot. We heard a lot of stories, but the only one we met was Jesse. None of the women you profiled had pimps. Did you meet any who did? We met some pimps. This begs the question: Why did none of them feature prominently in the film?
Unfortunately, the pimps prohibited it. One of the concerns we had with our lead characters is that selecting them downplays the prevalence of pimps and trafficking in the industry. Describe the police or security presence on the lot. Like I said, some truck stops were clean as a whistle. Others were out of control. When police rolled through, truckers would announce their arrival and precise location.
If you closed your eyes and listened you could see the police cars driving around the lot. The sex workers hid out in safe trucks until the lot cleared. In many truck stops, security was comically ineffective. Some of them enjoyed ogling the sex workers as much as the truck drivers did. It seemed there was a bias towards targeting the sex workers as opposed to Johns. The film depicts both prostitutes and truckers as victims in this larger drama of human appetites and loneliness.
Do you see both parties as victims? How would you describe the power dynamic? As one sex worker put it: Power dynamics varied from one person to the next. In some cases, it seemed like truck drivers were taking advantage of sex workers, in others like sex workers were taking advantage of truck drivers, and, in a rare few, it seemed there was mutual respect.
How did that come about? It seemed like she needed a sense of closure and empowerment. Ultimately, I think she bit off more than she could chew. Jennifer approached the interview with a confrontational outlook, but she has a heart of gold and as the interview progressed it became clear that she was deeply moved by his repentance. Monica and Betty both have intense but turbulent bonds with their boyfriends—how would you describe their relationships? Both couples were bound by two desires: These two drives vied with one another and the ebb and flow of each was the driving force behind the turbulence.
Bobby really loved Monica, but he was much more honest with himself about the self-destructiveness of their lifestyle. Tell me about the logistics of making this film. How did you evade the police, for example?
We had to make a presence known, so we introduced ourselves to truckers, shared a beer they really dug Bud Light for some reason , hung out at barbecues, you name it, until word got around and the people who met us could vouch for us. After a day or two, truckers were happy to be interviewed. The hardest thing about being a truck driver is the isolation and a lot of them were enthusiastic about sharing their stories.
At first, police and security assumed we were truck drivers—we did our best to look the part—but they inevitably caught on. We were trespassing on private property and they had every right to kick us out. Weaving through the shadows and ducking under trailers when the cops showed up gave us a small taste of how terrifying it is for sex workers. We were always looking over our shoulder for cops, security guards, angry truck drivers, pimps, drug dealers, and drug addicts. Most of the sex workers have been robbed, raped, stabbed, shot.
Was anyone hostile towards you? Some truck drivers became irate when they saw the cameras, but we were judicious in taking them out.
Betty told us her drug dealer said that he was going to kill us. Betty works the lot. Photo courtesy Alexander Perlman. Did the women you meet hope to do the same? What kind of support exists for a prostitute who wants to get clean? Deep down inside, almost all of the sex workers harbored doubts about their lifestyle. There were three approaches to dealing with those feelings. Most of the sex workers rationalized their doubts away.
When they ran out and were forced to confront their choices in the bright light of sobriety, they would go on a rampage. Many used a combination of the two approaches. A rare handful were honest with themselves. They expressed a sincere desire to change but felt trapped by the easy money. Unfortunately, support is not as widespread as it could be. Aside from the occasional truck stop chapel, the sex workers were left out in the cold.
Mother Jones has reported on a truck stop prostitution rehabilitation program —based on your experience, do you think such a program can succeed? How would you help them if you could?