Eszter Csepeli, HCA: Going The Distance with the 2022 Altitude Award Winner

WiM member Tara Jenkins chats with cinematographer Eszter Csepli, HCA about her international career as a cinematographer.

Tara is a freelance cinematographer and Local 600 AC with her MFA from USC in Film Production. She is a writer and content creator at American Cinematographer and the ASC.

Eszter Csepeli, HCA won the top honor at the Women in Media Altitude Awards in 2022. She began her career as a cinematographer in Budapest, Hungary, before moving to Los Angeles. She has lensed films such as The Execution, which was nominated for a Palm d’Or at Cannes, and the upcoming Quarter, starring Brooke Shields. Alongside shooting, she has taught cinematography at LMU under a Fulbright Scholarship. Csepeli is one of the founding members of the Hungarian Cinematographers’ Association.

Photo by: Nóra Bereczki

What inspired you to pursue cinematography? What has that journey been like?

I was drawn to being a cinematographer. It wasn’t a conscious choice. I started out, like a lot of people, doing black and white photography in my high school years. I just really enjoyed the laboratory work. I liked developing my photos, and later on I realized it had been really good training for me to learn lighting through that medium.

I didn’t touch a cinema camera until I was applying for film school, which I did very late – I was 25 years old. Before that, I had gone to law school because of family pressure. I went to film school in Budapest at the Hungarian University of Theatre and Film. It was a very competitive school with a very small cohort of cinematographers, something like eight people. It was a dream come true to be accepted. I was there for five years, which is very long, but it gave me a very extensive study in cinematography.

Getting out of film school in Hungary was a very frightening thing for me. I realize now that it is daunting in the US as well. When I was teaching at LMU in 2021 and 2022 as a Fulbright scholar, I had many graduate cinematography students who felt the same way. That’s when I realized that what I felt coming out of film school was completely normal. You are in a bubble for a couple of years, making your projects, and you’re in a place where it’s good to experiment. You should make a lot of mistakes in order to learn from them. But, then, suddenly you are out in the world and you need to show the industry what you’ve got.

You’ve worked extensively in both Hungary and the US. How do the two differ and what brought you to Los Angeles?

In Hungary, filmmaking wasn’t an open environment for women at all. I didn’t fully realize this until I graduated, and I tried to break into the film business in Hungary. There were no female camera operators. The last woman who shot a feature film as a cinematographer was in 2001, so 11 years before I graduated! Looking around in this environment, I was thinking — How am I going to make it? I started reading articles online, through Indiewire and similar outlets, and that’s when the voices started really reaching me from the US. Rachel Morrison, ASC and Reed Morano, ASC and all these other female DPs were talking about the importance of having female cinematographers behind the camera.

This gave me the idea that maybe I should pursue my career in the US instead of fighting against the odds in Hungary. It is really hard to change the mentality of the people in the industry. Why should I fight there? Maybe it isn’t easier in the US, but back then I thought it would be less difficult to come here and start something. I felt like I was more welcome than in my own country. So that started the process of moving to Los Angeles.

What was the process of moving your career to Los Angeles like?

I was lucky to work with great directors, even during my student years. One of the films I shot, called The Execution, got into Cannes in 2014. That really started my career in the US. I applied for an artist visa and started doing short films here. Then, the pandemic hit and I applied and won a Fulbright scholarship. It was great teaching young cinematographers. It’s wonderful to teach because you always learn something yourself. It’s one thing to do something for a long time, and another to talk about it. It was great reinforcement of the craft for me as well.

While working at LMU, I wanted to find out why things were much better in the film industry in the US versus Eastern Europe, and to find a community here. One of the organizations I found was Women In Media. During that same time, I was lucky to get signed by a commercial agent at CAA. Then, thanks to Women In Media, because I got on the crew list, a group of people found me for a feature film in the US called Quarter.

Basically, I hope this is really going to start my career here in the US on the narrative side. During the strike, I made a Hungarian feature film, which also just finished. It’s exciting – two of my films are coming out in late 2024.

You were a founding member of the Hungarian Cinematographers’ Association (HCA). Please speak about that.

I was the only female founding member. There were forty men. I was able to bring in two more female cinematographers later on and every time I talk to people, I am always referring them to female cinematographers. I have my own little fight and am trying to change the system from the inside out. But, overall, the tides are changing. Hungary is a hub for international productions. Dune 2, Poor Things, lots of things are happening right now in Hungary. Because of that, people have been coming in internationally and asking for female operators.

This is how I got onto the series Jack Ryan, actually, because cinematographer Richard Rutkowski was looking for a female operator. I am one of the first female operators in Hungary that has been working on international productions. The industry is changing slowly, and I am very happy that I can be a part of the change.

I would love to talk about you winning the Altitude Award two years ago.

I really enjoyed getting a sense of community from the awards. I’m still in touch with the other winners and people from Women In Media that I met through that experience. That’s a great thing – especially in harder times, when you can all get together and talk. It’s tough to be a female cinematographer, even in the US, and it’s good to have people to speak with about that. Being there was a win in itself. Winning was so out of the blue for me, but was such a fantastic experience as well.

Where do you see your career headed in the next five years?

After the Altitude Awards, I got into the ASC Vision Mentorship program. My mentor was Cynthia Pushek, ASC. That was certainly another step forward in my career. Since then, we finished shooting Quarter and I have also done some other short films.

In five years, I would love to be a well established DP with more narrative films on my resume. I would also really like to get more into the commercial world, in order to give myself the freedom to choose my narrative work more freely. I want to be balanced in my career.

What advice to young DPs, particularly women, would you give?

Look for mentors. That’s what I was lacking, obviously, because there weren’t many women around me. I think it’s really important to talk to established female cinematographers, not just for technical advice, but just for mental support. To learn about the path and what is ahead of you. I think that’s very important and is what I would recommend first. It can be a game changer.

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