Orlando Bassi – The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up



Initially, Orlando Bassi settled down on the island of Bali to set up a business in wig making. His hand-made hairpieces – and occasionally outrageous wigs – are sold all over the globe and frequently destined to decorate famous heads.

Heavy traffic congests Jalan Raya, the main street leading through Ubud. Tourists and locals alike stroll along the sidewalk in their ubiquitous flip-flops, unhurriedly overtaking the crawling cars. From our driver’s laid-back manner we conclude that the slow traffic is business as usual. "Time has a different meaning in Bali," Bassi will tell us later when we comment on the slow journey. Warm rain streams down the car windows as we look out on galleries, cafés, and shops, all tightly packed together. The road that leads toward the villages in the north takes us past family-run studios, workshops, and craft shops.

After 30 minutes on the road, which became successively less busy as we progressed, we reach the small village of Abuan – or rather Orlando Bassi's world: his never-never land. Surrounded by mountains partially hidden behind wafts of fog lies the tiny realm that Orlando has built himself. A film studio, a production site, and a showroom – all situated amidst luscious green scenery that comes with a colorful array of butterflies and birds with exotic plumage. A dream landscape as befits Bassi, master of his own dreamworld. His main source of revenue is the production and distribution of hand-knotted wigs and hairpieces. Everything, entire hairdos, moustaches, chest hair, and beards are produced on location, and they are in great demand worldwide. The television series "Spartacus," the Broadway musical "Spiderman," or the Hollywood production "Exodus": all wigs and hairpieces used were hand-knotted on the Indonesian island. For "Exodus", predicted to be a blockbuster upon its release in December 2014, over three hundred beards alone were ordered by producer Ridley Scott. The British courts, too, are loyal customers. Horsehair is used to create the traditional wigs for British barristers.

Bassi models a few wigs for us – "it’s very practical if you don't have any hair yourself"– to demonstrate how drastically they can alter an appearance before he continues to lead us around the production facility. Here, two hundred extremely precise hands are busily at work producing wigs. The storage room is piled high with boxes filled with hair. The shelves bear labels that have "Indonesian Hair" or "Indian Hair" written on them. Rarer and more expensive is the so-called "Eurohair" that usually originates from Russia or Ukraine. The employees brush the hair with large combs, dye it in aluminum pans, and then start deftly attaching the hair to a wig cap stretched over a wooden head. One by one. A single strand of hair at a time.

The wig cap of net lace is made to fit the exact pattern of the hairdo ordered. The requested color, length, and thickness are noted on data sheets that are filed after use. High humidity causes the files and the papers to warp on the shelves. Raising his eyebrows in a silent comment, Orlando takes out a file to show us the result. "This is actually pretty good, after all we're in Bali. You have to adjust to the local conditions." A touch of irony seems to accompany everything he says.

Of course, in Switzerland this kind of thing would give you a coronary.

With his wide-ranging interests and frequent dealings in the film industry, the bustling FX makeup artist ended up becoming an accidental entrepreneur. He now runs six companies, including the first and, to date, only "Movie Studio Bali." One of the employees mentions that Bassi's staff currently numbers 145 members. Here Bassi interrupts with an amused look and says, "Well, I pay 145 salaries, that much is true. I just don't always know where these people are." He chuckles and explains, "Many attend ceremonies during the day, so they're not at work all the time." It becomes evident, however, that Bassi has a deep respect for the Indonesian culture. Despite griping about certain conditions, he passionately defends the Indonesian attitude toward life. "There is a certain lightness to the people here, and they do things with a touch of humor. I felt at home in Indonesia from day one. In Surabaya, in Jakarta, and here on Bali, where I live now."

Bassi grew up in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. His family would have liked to see him take over the family metal construction company, and he even started training as a TV technician. Soon, however, he decided it wasn't for him. Instead he trained as a hairdresser and went on to become a special effects makeup artist. "People here have somehow managed to hold on to their childhood souls," he feels. "I can identify with that." Does the Indonesian approach to life mean that his employees expect a different type of management? "I guess it's basically the same everywhere when you're in charge," Bassi says.

Maybe the workers here prefer a more paternal or traditional type of boss over a CEO tailored to the latest guidelines.

"But, the staff here wants the manager to be someone who can motivate them. Someone who doesn't show any weaknesses and who has a solution for every problem." Bassi tells us that understanding this mentality took a while. "Yet the staff is also learning from me," he says, "because I do show my weaknesses. Some of them gave me funny looks in the beginning, but, hey, I'm human, too. The main thing is that you're always available."

Bassi’s core business also includes cosmetics and special effects (or: FX) for film and theater, shows and musicals. Beckoning, he guides us into his chamber of horrors. Sawn-off legs share shelf space with giant spiders, drowned corpses, and monster teeth. Taking down one object after another, he relates anecdotes about his collection. Whether from the humidity or the topic, by the end of the tour Bassi is perspiring noticeably. "Making movies will start earning revenue at some point, but for now it's mainly a big passion of mine. I'm investing a lot of my own money in this."

If I wanted to earn real money with this, there would be faster ways of doing it than with this stuff.

It often almost seems as though he is laughing at himself. "When it comes down to it, most of what I'm doing here is really a big hobby," he analyses and offers a self-diagnosis. "I think I may be suffering from the Peter Pan syndrome: I didn't want to follow the traditional stages of childhood, adolescence, and then adulthood for the rest of my life. This here is my supersize playground." Currently he is working on three horror movies that are being recorded in the jungle. "Bali Vampire" and "Spiderville" are two of the production titles. Besides having fun, Bassi also wants to demonstrate that it is possible to make high-quality movies at a relatively modest budget in Indonesia. "We're making a trailer for 'Spiderville' to show at Cannes and hope to get some funding together."

He pushes open a door in the large studio wall at the back to reveal a vista of an expansive paddy field. Breathing in deeply, he asks, "Isn't it beautiful?" It would indeed be impossible to imagine a more fairy tale-like setting. Several geese can be seen dipping their beaks into the still water around the rice paddies. A man walks slowly across the field carrying a brightly colored umbrella for protection against the incessant drizzle, a frisky dog trots at his side. To our right, the enormous head of a monster with wide-open jaws glistens in the rain. "Oh yes, that. A prop from 'Amphibious,' one of our recent movies," says Bassi dismissively. And with a mock-serious face he adds, "I really think there's still too much of the little boy inside of me."

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