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Screenwriting duo Mary Fox & Marty Thornton discuss Hidden Assets
12 Sep 2023 : Luke Shanahan
Mary Fox and Marty Thornton
We caught up with screenwriting duo Mary Fox and Marty Thornton, two of the writers in the Hidden Assets season two writers’ room, following the premiere of the new season on RTÉ. The thriller is currently airing on Sunday evenings at 9.30pm on RTÉ One until October 8th, and is also available to stream on RTÉ Player.

Mary Fox and Marty Thornton are a screenwriting duo, who join showrunner Peter McKenna in the writers room of the latest season of Irish/Canadian/Belgian co-production Hidden Assets.

Hidden Assets season one followed Detective Sergeant Emer Berry (Angeline Ball) as she worked out how a diamond haul in Limerick, a body in Antwerp, and a terrorist bombing campaign were all connected. Season two of the series sees Berry replaced by Claire Wallace (Nora-Jane Noone) as Detective Sergeant of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB), as she faces a coordinated cyber-attack targeting CAB and the Belgian Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU), with a connection to the Bibi-Brannigan case.

The series was commissioned by RTÉ and Acorn TV in association with Screen Ireland, Screen Flanders and SuperChannel, and is financed through tax incentives from Ireland (Section 481), Belgium (BNPPFFF) and Canada (Quebéc production tax services). Hidden Assets is produced by Irish production company Saffron Moon and Canada’s Facet4 Media and co-produced with Belgian producer Potemkino.

We sat down with screenwriters Mary Fox & Marty Thornton to discuss coming onboard the series, embracing creative challenges, and sources of inspiration.

IFTN: What was it like coming on board the writing team led by showrunner Peter McKenna and entering into a world already firmly established in Season One?

MARY & MARTY: “Hidden Assets being in its second season meant we came to the writer’s room with an understanding of the world of the story and a shorthand for the returning characters. In advance, Vicky Owens, development producer, armed us with research about white collar crime and the worlds its players inhabit. This gave us a sense of where the story could go and what motivates the characters on both sides of its divide, law enforcement and criminality.”

“With Peter McKenna at the helm and flanked by Siobhán Bourke, series producer, a safe space was established from the get-go. It was an environment where ideas were encouraged and writers freely pitched story and character to break season two. What do characters want? What will they sacrifice to get it? Will they succeed?”

“Peter’s generosity and quick problem solving kept us on our toes and brought out the best in the writers. As we learned, a successful writers room is a collaborative process. Susan E. Connolly (episode four) and Sinéad Collopy (episode three) come from different worlds to us and had different perspectives. It was a privilege to share a room with talented people who brought life experience and intelligence to the conversation. Season two writers took the baton from season one and ran with it.”

IFTN: What inspired the decision to have a significant time gap between season one and season two, and how did this decision impact the direction of the story?

MARY & MARTY: “From a story perspective, the time gap afforded us the opportunity to meet our characters one year on. Richard Melnick is dead, Bibi is estranged and back in Ireland, Emer Berry has been promoted and Claire Wallace is now heading our CAB team. From a plot point of view, we needed to allow time for certain events to have taken place, the privatisation of Antwerp port and the subsequent bidding process for its purchase, so we could come in at the tail end of that.”

IFTN: This season sees Claire Wallace (Nora-Jane Noone) take the place of Emer Berry (Angeline Ball), was it a challenge to replace such a core character?

MARY & MARTY: “Of course, but as writers we welcome a challenge. It was key that we establish Claire Wallace as a very different, but equally strong, female lead. Both Emer and Claire are driven by the core belief that white collar crime is not a ‘victimless crime.’ They have seen its effect up close: shattered lives, both emotionally and financially.”

“Emer is a sharp, motivated and determined investigator. She relishes relieving criminals of their ill-gotten gains, but hankers for something bigger. Hence, there’s vigour in her approach to working alongside CTU in season one.”

“Claire Wallace is sharp, driven and focused. She views her role with CAB as prestigious and the next step in a meticulously curated career plan, with an end goal of either advancement up the ranks in the Guards or a six figure salary in the private sector. She is a controlled, polished and cerebral detective, who juggles career and family. Let’s see where season two takes her.”

IFTN: How do you approach balancing the Ireland-based and Belgium-based sides of the narrative?

MARY & MARTY: “Hidden Assets is an international crime thriller. In season two the Irish Criminal Assets Bureau and the Belgian Counter Terrorism Unit cross paths once again in their investigations. Both teams are well developed with Claire Wallace and Christian De Jong as their respective leaders. We explore the procedural aspects of both departments. However, both law enforcement agencies have very different goals. On the Irish side, CAB is always about following the money, whereas with Belgian CTU it’s about saving lives. In truth we all love to see the Irish abroad and this season we take not only the new boss, Claire Wallace, but the entire CAB team to Antwerp.”

IFTN: Are there any crime thrillers, be that in film or television, that have influenced your work on Hidden Assets? The broad-daylight attack on the cops in S2ep1 had shades of Michael Mann’s Heat.

MARY & MARTY: “Funnily enough, we didn’t use Heat as a reference point for this scene, but we’ll happily take it. Thank you! We were influenced by the likes of Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge and Zinnemann’s Day of the Jackal for their meticulous attention to detail, suspense, and ingenious twists. Ketai’s television drama StartUp was an excellent complementary watch to Netflix’s Dirty Money.”

IFTN: How did you approach portraying the cyber-attack storyline, in light of the recent HSE cyberattack?

MARY & MARTY: “A hack can be difficult to portray on screen, as it unfolds in the digital domain. We needed to strike the correct balance for drama. Too technical and you risk losing the audience, not technical enough and you risk not sounding credible.”

“Having said that, the primary challenge in portraying the cyber-attack was to illustrate jeopardy effectively. That’s why we decided to focus on the human rather than the economic cost of the breach. We were shocked to learn that over ninety-six per cent of victims experience significant emotional or psychological consequences following an attack.”

“Norah Dillon (Cathy Belton) and Josh Ola (Kwaku Fortune) are CAB officers who are not members of the Garda Síochána. Such officers are anonymous. During the cyber attack in episode one, the hackers release Josh’s details as ‘proof of life’, proof they actually have the information they are threatening to release on the dark web should their conditions not be met. When Sean Prendergast (Aaron Monagan) believes he could be responsible, it creates tension between the colleagues. Acknowledging the impact this hack could have on CAB officers puts our characters in jeopardy and drives the story forward.”

IFTN: What are you most looking forward to in terms of the audience's reaction to season two? Is there a particular moment, character arc, or plot twist that you're eager for viewers to experience and discuss?

MARY & MARTY: “Cyber attacks, conspiracy, and corruption give Season Two a lot to choose from. Expect high stakes, unexpected twists and edge of the seat action. Having said that, there is one particular moment that springs to mind... But it’s worth the wait! No spoilers.”

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