Screenwriter Denis McGrath talks about his experience freelancing an episode of STARGATE: UNIVERSE.
While I was off over a month trying to generate my story, fixed in stone — all the other targets were moving, and moving rapidly. Earlier scripts were going through production drafts…characters were changing and evolving. Casting, and then shooting, revealed actors' strengths that meant that they got written to more. I had only the barest, fuzziest hold on some of the secondary characters. In a new show, things change rapidly in production, and when you're in the room you absorb those changes in small increments on a daily basis.
Eventually, I begged for more scripts, and got them, and being able to digest six or seven scripts, and see the characters on the page helped me writing my drafts.
It's hard to believe that freelancing was once the rule in TV, and still is in some places. It just packs more pressure on the one or two people who have to make all the stories line up. As a freelancer, my job with my SGU script was to get it to a point where somebody else could "take it over," and see it through production. The better I did, ideally the less they'd have to rewrite.
Except of course it never works out that way, especially in a show's first season. When you're three thousand miles out of the loop of the show that's developing on those soundstages, you just do the best you can, and hope that you don't cause somebody too much work.
It's always hard freelancing an episode of a brand new series, since nobody is entirely sure what the show is or who the characters are…not the showrunners, the studio, or the network. It's trying to hit a constantly moving target. I've done it a few times… on SLIDERS, PSYCH, and on an upcoming summer series I can't talk about yet. There's no question about it…freelancing is hard, but it's not that much easier writing a script for a show that's been on the air for a season or two. Yes, everyone knows the show (including you!)… but it's harder coming up with a story or character conflict that they haven't already done or have in development.
UPDATE: Here's another view on McGrath's freelance experience from the other side of the desk as SG:U producer Joseph Mallozzi saw it.