It's always good to be polite.

That's why a journalist at the Toronto International Film Festival news conference for "The Master" tactfully asked lionized director Paul Thomas Anderson how he avoided his film becoming a "scenery chew-off" between Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who were not at the press conference, although they were in town).

With mock surprise, Anderson - who casually refers to his two male stars as "the boys" - replied "you mean it isn't?"

Actually, it's not, as furiously acted as it is. It's something extraordinary with amazing performances that are all completely different. No competition would be possible.

"They're really strong hitters," said Anderson of Phoenix and Hoffman. "But they're both team players."

As for the film's large - and growing - reputation, Anderson said, "I'm not sure what's going on. It's kind of amazing the way people are responding to it."

Nothing amazing about it. But then, disingenuousness is sometimes necessary. Even though Anderson can't say so, "The Master" is a film clearly inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology, which he founded in the years following World War II. That's where gigantic initial interest came from.

The cult that has been formed in the film - from a combination of a seemingly endless stream of bull roar and acute conditioning - isn't a cult to Anderson. Or so he claimed. "It's like food and drink to me," he told journalists, in that it was a typically postwar "mix of an incredible amount of optimism and an incredibly large body count behind you."

The master in the film preaches publicly, masturbates privately to his wife's commands and is, whether he knows it or not (we're never sure), violently defended by an alcoholic, sex-obsessed, semi-believer (Phoenix) who's always ready to be a thug on his leader's behalf.

It was, in part, inspired by Anderson keeping the Turner Classic Movies network on "in my house 24 hours a day." To let the period "soak into our veins."

A particular inspiration for Phoenix's war veteran was John Huston's renowned documentary for the War Department, "Let There Be Light," which was ultimately censored by the department for its frank depiction of shell-shocked soldiers in veterans' hospitals.

"There's stuff we ripped off line by line in that film," says Anderson.

Sitting next to Anderson at the Toronto press conference was his female star, Amy Adams, who cheerily told the assemblage, "I have Sprout on 24 hours a day."

-Jeff Simon