How 'American Gods' Adapted the Pivotal House on the Rock Scene
"Can we talk about this place for a minute?" actress Yetide Badaki asks, as she yanks me out of the way of passing crew members. "I've about lost my mind!"
We're standing on one of a seemingly endless series of crisscrossing blood-red ramps in the phantasmagoric labyrinth known as the House on the Rock. This massive and decidedly strange tourist attraction in rural Wisconsin was the work of a semi-mysterious architecture buff named Alex Jordan, Jr. He began in the 1940s with a simple structure built atop a pinnacle of rock, and then just kept on building, filling the burgeoning house with all manner of eccentric oddities as the years passed. Eventually Jordan's project became a complex maze of more than a dozen rooms, which can take many hours, if not several days, to walk through. The House on the Rock opened to the public in 1959, and fans of Neil Gaiman know it due to a crucial scene in his 2001 novel American Gods.
And now it's been featured in all its absurd glory in the opening episode of the season two of the Starz series adapted from Gaiman's book. Badaki -- who plays Bilquis, the goddess who devours men whole with her vagina-- isn't the only cast member whose mind has been blown. "My eyes are burning, just looking at everything here," says actor Ricky Whittle, who plays the show's protagonist, Shadow Moon. "I'm in a crazy, mystical house that just goes up, up, up."
Whittle pretty much nails this place. Entering the property, you pass a collection of oversized dragon urns. After parking, you pass through a small Japanese garden with a koi pond and then enter a simple-looking wooden structure that is the house itself. Your first stop might be the Infinity Room, a glass hallway which juts out some 218 feet over the rocks without support underneath creating an illusion that the space has no end. Then comes the kitschy craziness of the main building, which is accessible only by a series of frankly exhausting ramps. "You're getting some serious glute-work in," Whittle says with a laugh. "I don't feel like I'm walking downhill, ever. Our crew is getting pretty fit lugging all this equipment up."
Next you enter the warehouse-size rooms filled with tons of strange and faintly creepy bric-a-brac: automaton orchestras, coin-operated fortune teller machines, eerie Victorian dolls, stuffed animals, unamusing clowns, guns and suits of armor. Hanging from the rafters are department store mannequins with angel wings attached and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In one room, an exhibit of a 200-foot whale fighting a giant squid welcomes you. "This whale is so flipping huge!" then-showrunner Jesse Alexander marvels. "Just think: Somebody had to plan this, and then they had to build it, inside the building. You couldn't move this. It's too huge!"
Because this is now a film set, there are signs attempting to convey the complex information of how to get from point A to point B. Gaiman finds this confusion to be "one of the joys" of the House on the Rock. "You're going, 'Hey, this is a strange part. Oh my god. I think we come around there and... go down there? We'll find it eventually.'" He advises us to just "drift through it like water."
Gaiman spent several pages of American Gods trying to describe this place, but admits he couldn't fully capture the surrealist sensation of being here. "When I told people that I wound up cutting the description in the book in order to keep it within the realm of credibility, they thought it was some kind of hyperbole," he says. "But then they walk around the place, and then they see all this stuff that I didn't mention. There was just a point where if I listed it all, you'd go, 'Ah, come on!' It would break your head."
Real life, Gaiman notes, has "no obligation to be credible." And the House on the Rock is proof of that. "The first time I came here in the mid-1990s," he says, "I just went, 'OK, what the fuck is this?'" At the time, he had only recently relocated to the States, and he began thinking about this place. If he could just somehow understand the House on the Rock, he thought, maybe he could understand America, too -- our penchant for roadside attractions, our compulsion to hoard strange worthless items, our love of curiosities and idiotic oddities. In a way, the House on the Rock helped spark the idea for what became American Gods. Gaiman came to see the impulse that drove amateur architect Alex Jordan to create the House on the Rock as the same sort of impulse that once drove people to create cathedrals. "Alex Jordan wanted something you could walk around in every day for the rest of your life, and still see new things," Gaiman says.
The bare-breasted mannequin angels hanging from the ceiling and the sinister doll collections don't impart much of a cathedral feeling. And members of the crew talk about strange things they see and hear at night -- machines mysteriously turning on by themselves and whatnot. Haunted? Regardless, Gaiman thinks the giant space holds a kind of power -- a power that Mr. Wednesday says is the reason the characters have made a pilgrimage here. I watch actor Ian McShane repeatedly deliver a line about roadside attractions being the loci of magical forces as he goes over the blocking of a scene -- a complex process made more so by the ramps he and Whittle must navigate as they speak their lines, at the same time working out how quickly they should walk and which of them should be ahead of, or alongside the other. McShane is a master of this, and gives each new reading a fresh spin, gesticulating wildly.
The two men's characters, Mr. Wednesday and Shadow, are en route to an even more spectacular attraction within the House on the Rock -- the world's largest carousel. This huge machine took 10 years to build; it stands 35 feet tall and measures 80 feet in diameter. There are no horses, only mermaids, manticores, centaurs, unicorns, basilisks, sea serpents, and the like. None of the creatures are actually intended to be mounted, but today, the carousel has been specially outfitted with a few special beasties meant to hold the weight of a few actors. "The carousel is not meant to be ridden," Gaiman says. "There's a tiny number of human beings who've been allowed to ride it," among them fans who attended a 2010 gathering at the House on the Rock for the American Gods anniversary. Gaiman himself has also had a ride. ("I have to say, there are very few things in my life that felt quite as good," he says.)
The phantom carousel is usually only meant to be marveled at as it makes its endless circuits, the heat from its 20,000 red-and-white lights becoming almost unbearable. And today, for the shoot, there are more lights boosting the temperature. The scene being shot is very tricky, mainly because the giant carousel's motor is not easy to stop and start in order to accommodate retakes. So McShane, Badaki, and Orlando Jones, positioned on their mounts, try to get their lines right as they center up with the camera and their characters try to entice Shadow to join them on the continuously-running carousel. Meanwhile, Whittle is jumping over a barrier in order to take a seat on some sort of hybrid tiger-eagle beast, over and over again, trying to get the timing of his jump just right. It's hot, and this is hard work. (Whittle jokes when he needs yet another retake, "I'm a diva! I'm more special than anyone else!")
The mood on the set seems light-hearted, which is unusual, given that the production is approximately two months behind schedule. Previous showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green departed in November and were replaced by Alexander in February, and at this point, in April, he's in the middle of writing episode seven and planning episode eight. There are no indications of insurmountable problems, no shouting matches (at least not in front of a visiting reporter). Alexander uses a break to show me the House on the Rock's Mikado Room, which will be recreated on a virtual set in Toronto, since Cloris Leachman and Peter Stormare couldn't make this trip to Wisconsin.
"You can see that this place is amazing," Alexander says. "I really wanted House on the Rock to happen in the first episode because the audience who stuck with you through Season 1 deserves it. We're setting the stage, reintroducing the players, and I'm hoping that seeing all of this rewards the fans from season one and excites the new people who've just shown up."
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Streamail for more entertainment, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.