When we are children, we must bring reality down to a scale we can grasp. We build sand castles and play games that give us the illusion of power over the indifferent universe.

In "The Master," the mesmerizing new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, two men -- one an inarticulate near-animal, the other puffed full of fanciful bluster -- literally enact those fantasies. They join as disciple and guru, but their symbiosis proves volatile and fragile.

"The Master" has been controversial before its release for purported parallels to Scientology, but as in Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," the issues it raises about belief reach far beyond specific creeds.

In an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, Anderson discussed the importance of spontaneity in epic stories, and how his stars continually surprised him, and his late-blooming interest in religion.

"I'm not really scholarly about [religion] but somehow I've ended up in this territory a few times," Anderson said. "I was raised Catholic, but very loose. We'd go to church on Sunday, and I went to Sunday school. Unfortunately, I just thought it was all sort of boring."

Now he considers the Bible a great source of "stories that are all so filled with great sex and violence, thrilling, exciting stories. None of that came through as a kid -- they were just being told in such a dull way."

Anderson particularly savors the juicy illustrated version of Genesis by comic artist Robert Crumb. "That's how it should be, with some energy behind these amazing stories."

Like "There Will Be Blood," "The Master" poses large questions about the function of religion in society. Still, Anderson said he didn't set out with that goal in mind.

"I have to say, I have very few big ideas," he said. "I started with these characters," Lancaster Dodd, the cult leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Freddie Quell, a volatile World War II veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix. "If the characters get you to bigger ideas, you're lucky. Trying to wrap your arms around [a universal theme] is like trying to wrap your arms around the world. Tell the story of a person."

Anderson said he was inspired by John Steinbeck, whose tales of California working-class life inform several of "The Master's" scenes. Like Steinbeck, Anderson said, his aim was to tell a significant story by "distilling its elements down to something you can hold in your hand. That will lead you to bigger questions, the things we all think about."

Hoffman, a longtime Anderson collaborator, and newcomer Phoenix shared the Venice Film Festival's best actor prize for their fire-and-ice roles. In a key scene, they share adjoining jail cells. Hoffman's character takes his confinement with Buddha-like composure, while Phoenix throws a violent fit, slamming his head against a heavy bunk and stomping the porcelain toilet to splinters. It's an electrifying passage even for Anderson, who said he had no idea what the co-stars had in store for him.

"That's the first take," he marveled. "I don't know if [Phoenix] injured himself; it had to hurt. That was a scene we had written hundreds of different ways, about how it might go. When we approached it, all three of us were on completely different pages about what was going to happen. We just knew that being in a cage had to be the worst thing in the world for that person and that's the most that we discussed it. It was up to him what might happen next."

The film is a veritable Russian doll of mysteries, but the greatest may be the murky bond between the suave, confident leader and his furious, aggressive protégé. "I was thinking about what happens to someone who's desperate for affection and falls for someone whose instinct is to not stick around. That happens a lot of times in relationships. You fall in love with the person who's just bound to hurt you. Why does the master, who seems to need people to be near him and close to him, have such affection and love for a guy who's going to run away and break his heart? Whatever that is inside us, I don't know. Love is strange, you know? It's just peculiar. And here it is. It's a bottomless pit of many different answers, and they all fit. It's an endless well of stuff to get excited about."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186