Meet the neighbours

Meet the neighbours

By Michael Pickard
November 24, 2023

The Director’s Chair

Belgian director Dries Vos pulls back the curtain on the making of The Couple Next Door, Channel 4’s dark psychological thriller in which two couples living in the same suburban street become drawn to each other, with dramatic consequences.

Of the three European dramas so far remade for UK television by Eagle Eye Drama – the production company set up by the team behind streaming service Walter Presents – Belgian director Dries Vos has worked on two.

The first was Professor T, with Vos directing 12 episodes over its first two seasons. Debuting in 2021, the ITV series is based on the Belgian show of the same name and stars Ben Miller as a university criminologist with obsessive-compulsive disorder who assists the police in solving crimes.

Last year then saw the release of Channel 4 drama Suspect, an adaptation of Danish series Forhøret. It stars James Nesbitt as a detective retracing the final days of his murdered daughter to find out what happened.

Vos directed all eight episodes of Suspect, which has been recommissioned for a second season, and he has now directed all six parts of The Couple Next Door, the latest Eagle Eye adaptation, again for Channel 4.

A dark, psychological and emotionally charged thriller written by David Allison (Bedlam, Marcella), the series is based on Dutch drama New Neighbours and aims to explore the claustrophobia of living in suburbia, where you never quite know what goes on behind closed doors.

Director Dries Vos on set for Channel 4’s The Couple Next Door

Eleanor Tomlinson and Alfred Enoch star as Evie and Pete, who move into a new house in an upscale neighbourhood and quickly befriend their neighbours, traffic cop Danny (Sam Heughan) and his yoga instructor wife Becka (Jessica De Gouw). The two couples then becoming increasingly close until events on one fateful night change all their lives forever.

In Belgium, Vos is known for comedy series and crime dramas such as Women of the Night and De Dag (The Day), which dramatised the events surrounding a bank robbery from the point of view of both the police and the robbers.

“But I’ve always wanted to do some kind of sexy thriller,” the director tells DQ. “I’ve always done these more heist stories like De Dag, for instance, but this was completely different. Eagle Eye talked about it in September 2022, when they had two scripts, and I started reading it and immediately felt it could be something. We then started working on it first at a script level, of course, and then we started shooting at the end of March this year.”

Having worked on remakes in the past, Vos adopted the same approach for The Couple Next Door that he used when working on Professor T and Suspect, which is to ignore the fact it is based on another series and to treat it as if it has been created from scratch.

“I never watch the original series. I never read anything about it,” he says. “For me, it’s just the same as if it’s a new script. Otherwise, you’re in danger of stealing stuff.

“If all this influence comes my way, I might maybe try to change my vision and I just want to be clear, so I always start by trying to search for some pictures, some stuff from other movies, some references. I had some pictures that I showed the writer – there were some stills from a movie I love with some koi carp, and we ended up writing some scenes with koi. We influenced each other the whole time. But if you watch the original series then you’re too attached to what you see. That’s not always helpful.”

The series centres on two couples, including Eleanor Tomlinson and Alfred Enoch as Evie and Pete…

With international dramas more accessible to viewers than ever – and Walter Presents doing as much as any other streamer to take local-language dramas around the world – remakes may seem unnecessary. But Vos still sees value in adaptations, believing the same story can evolve through the work of new storytellers in front of and behind the camera.

“It’s easily said, ‘Oh, it’s a remake,’ but you always try to invent it from scratch,” he says. “It’s the way you approach it visually [as a director] but also the way you’re directing those actors. They bring some other stuff with them as well. A writer brings some other stuff, so it’s good if you get the freedom to make it your own.

“If you don’t have that freedom and people just want to see the same as the original,  there’s no point making a remake. It’s always got to be filtered through the eyes of a director or through the eyes of a writer so it’s got another perspective than the original.”

The Couple Next Door doesn’t just stand apart from the series it is inspired by, but from anything else Vos has directed in the past. “You evolve as a director, and you’re influenced by things you see and things you think are cool,” he says. “But what I always try to do is ask, ‘What is this show?’ What does this show need?’

“For instance, I like to play with genres, so this could be a romantic movie but also a fairytale or have some thriller elements, and I put them all in a box and shake it a little bit. Then I put my personality in it and there’s something new or a new visual language, or just the way you’re blocking actors or their language is different or whatever. There are so many parameters you can play with. You can still just remake something on a shot-by-shot basis, but what’s the point of it all?”

…and Sam Heughan and Jessica De Gouw as Danny and Becka

Taking a cue from De Dag, a key visual trick Vos uses for The Couple Next Door is the multiple perspectives at play as characters constantly watch each other. And it’s not just Evie, Pete, Danny and Becka, but also another neighbour, Alan (Hugh Dennis), who seems to have a particular interest in Becka.

“It’s a story about lots of people. My first instinct was like, ‘Ah, this is a story about Evie.’ But if you dig into it, it evolves a little bit more towards a story about Danny and Becka as well because they have problems in their relationship,” the director explains. “There is also some stuff happening with Pete and Evie at the same time, and so it evolves by having those two couples. In the first episode, we focus more on Evie but then some episodes shift a little bit more towards Alan. I always like to have more perspectives on the same story.

“Those perspective changes are really interesting to play with narratively, but also visually. It’s about the ensemble. When you finish episode six, you will have a complete storyline for everybody.”

The filming locations also added to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Location scouts discovered a cul-de-sac in the Netherlands with homes that create a suitably heightened atmosphere owing to the fact they look like they belong in American suburbia. Filming also took place in Leeds and in Belgium.

“It’s a completely strange setup but that’s why I love it,” Vos says of the exteriors location. “So having that and also having people watching through curtains and watching each other, that’s a cool thing to play with.

Vos says he avoided watching New Neighbours, the Dutch drama on which the show is based

“It’s also a bit soapy – it’s got some soapy elements in there. But the series evolves to something completely different and completely dark by the end.”

Throughout the course of the series, it’s safe to say not everything goes to plan for the two couples, as Evie and Danny become drawn to each other over the course of the first episode. Vos used the camera to demonstrate the distances between characters, sometimes starting off distant and drawing closer, and on other occasions becoming more separated.

Of course, the actors are key to getting the right chemistry for the series, particularly Tomlinson and Heughan. Vos jokes that he just says “action… and then stuff happens,” but he also spent time with the actors to break down their characters and explain what he wanted from them.

“They went out for dinner, and there’s got to be a minimum level of trust,” he says of Tomlinson and Heughan. “It’s very interesting to see, but what I was doing was always on a gut level. You don’t have a lot of time because there are a lot of stress factors during shooting, so sometimes you have to decide on the spot.”

The challenges on the show didn’t just come down to finding the right locations to create the drama’s pristine appearance – further exemplifying the show’s theme that not everything is as it appears. In particular, “just finding the right tone was the biggest one for this series,” the director reveals, “I think it works and hopefully an audience will think the same.”

Outnumbered’s Hugh Dennis also has a prominent role in the series

The right tone, one that blends psychological thrills with charged emotion, was still being sought on the last day of filming, and continued into the editing process.

“On the last day we were still like, ‘But what is it?’ Visually we found it while we were shooting but, still, story-wise, it’s only when it’s coming together in the edit that you get that feeling,” he says. “I also spent a year searching for the right music, because music on this series makes a difference. Music can change so much.

“Then when we were at a screening, Hugh Dennis said to me, ‘You found it.’”

Audiences can judge for themselves when The Couple Next Door launches on Channel 4 on Monday. It will also air on Starz in the US and Canada in 2024, with Beta Film distributing the drama internationally.

Can Vos envisage returning for a second season? “Let’s see how it evolves, and if people love it, let’s go for a second series,” he says. “But if it’s a flop or people hate it, then it’s over. Let’s just see what happens in the next few weeks.”

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